‘I want her to worry about whos waiting on the
‘I want her to worry about whos waiting on the

‘I want her to worry about who’s waiting on the corner’: How one US man uses Facebook to frighten his children’s mother and why police do nothing

CHICAGO: Shortly before Christmas 2022, Dominique Ward made an unplanned stop at Target to do some last-minute shopping with her three-year-old daughters.

She was miles from her home, in a neighbourhood where she didn’t know a single person. She assumed no one there knew her or her girls, either – until the following day when someone sent her a screenshot of a Facebook page belonging to the girls’ father.

He had posted “an open letter” to his daughters, identical twins he had been barred from contacting without court supervision after multiple allegations of abusive behaviour toward their mother.

“I got to see you the other day,” the note stated. “You were in a target shopping cart wearing matching cute outfits. You we’re (sic) absolutely gorgeous, the most beautiful little babies I have ever seen. You were sitting next to each other playing with each other as your mom pushed you around. Your smiles were infectious and silliness was so familiar. What you don’t know (is) that there is a community of love surrounding you, sending Daddy pictures and videos keeping me updated on your progress.”

The post stopped Ward cold.

She had been locked in a custody and child support battle for years with her ex-partner, a computer whiz with a sizable social media following and a well-documented disregard for court orders. Since moving to Florida in 2021, he had been offering money on Facebook for information regarding his children, including:

•US$25 (RM117) per photo of the girls.

•US$50 (RM235) for videos.

•US$100 (RM470) for the address of a mother-child yoga class Ward was organising.

•US$10,000 (RM47,060) for anyone who can bring the girls to him for “a peaceful, arranged meeting”.

The Target post was a reminder that people – usually complete strangers – were taking him up on the various offers and tracking her whereabouts. And it was proof, yet again, that no one in authority cared enough to stop it.

Records show that in the year leading up to the shopping trip, Ward and her attorney Lindsay Nathan had sought help from the Chicago police, Cook County prosecutors and Facebook employees. They all listened to her story and then explained why they couldn’t do anything about the posts, a reflection of the complex and, often, apathetic response to electronic harassment in towns across Illinois.

A Tribune analysis of crime data shows Chicago police made arrests in only 2% of the domestic-related electronic harassment and cyberstalking complaints received in the past 10 years. And since 2021 – the year Ward first went to authorities with her concerns – the arrest rate has been about 1%.

“How do I protect my children if I can’t even go to the store without someone following us or stalking my girls?” asked Ward, now 39. “We have targets on our backs every time we leave the house, but no one is taking it seriously.”

In a telephone interview with the Tribune, the children’s father, Micah Berkley, confirmed he wrote the posts soliciting pictures of his daughters on social media. He said he also seeks photographs through targeted Facebook ads that appear in the feeds of people who live within a ½-mile radius of Ward’s house and the children’s school.

Berkley, 41, considers his actions – which continue to this day – to be “technological warfare,” a social media-driven, 21st-century way to fight back against custody and child support rulings that haven’t gone his way. He estimates he has paid about US$6,000 (RM28,233) for images and other information since he and Ward broke up in late 2020, though the Tribune could not independently verify that. No one has been able to claim the US$10,000 (RM47,060) reward for arranging a “peaceful” meeting with the girls, he said.

“I hear she’s scared,” he told the Tribune. “She should be scared. She should be terrified. I want her to worry about who’s waiting on the corner whenever she walks outside.”

An analysis of data from nearly two dozen Illinois police departments found police rarely arrest people for electronic harassment, even as complaints increase. And though state laws have kept up with this very modern intimidation method, the laws’ enforcers – police, prosecutors, judges – have not, experts say.

“We have great laws on the books, but the problem is that they aren’t implemented,” said Vickie Smith, former CEO of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “Nobody thinks it is a big deal because they don’t understand how this kind of non-physical domestic violence can harm someone on a daily basis.”

Public records show Ward has gone to the Chicago Police Department at least twice to file a report since 2021, explaining the situation just as her father – a retired CPD officer – instructed. Each time, she says, officers told her it would be difficult to prove her former boyfriend was behind the keyboard when the messages were posted and that prosecutors would be reluctant to charge the case. Berkley, who readily acknowledges he wrote and published the messages, says he has never been contacted by law enforcement in regards to his social media accounts.

A Tribune analysis found the Chicago Police Department receives thousands of electronic harassment and cyberstalking complaints each year, more than a third of which are categorised as domestic-related. In 2023, for example, more than 2,400 people reported being electronically harassed or cyberstalked in Chicago – with more than 800 of them saying the abuse was perpetrated by someone with whom they have a familial or intimate relationship.

Of those 824 domestic-related complaints last year, only nine – 1% – resulted in an arrest.

It’s an arrest rate more than 15 times lower than other domestic crimes in 2023, including battery and order of protection violations. Of more commonly reported crimes, only those involving deception – such as pickpocketing, unauthorised credit card use and confidence games – have lower arrest rates.

A deeper look into the data offers a hint at how Chicago police handle these cases. In a review of those 824 cases from last year, while most were suspended unless more evidence developed, police outright closed more than a fourth of them, almost always using a category of disposition that describes when police are confident they know who did it but for some reason decide they can’t make an arrest.

Even the number of arrests can be deceiving. A look at arrests over the past decade found many came only after allegations of more serious crimes committed at the same time as the alleged harassment – from arson to strangulation and home invasion.

The lack of arrests isn’t exclusive to Chicago. An examination of Illinois State Police and suburban department data shows police outside Chicago rarely make arrests.

There are also very few people charged with cyberstalking on the federal level. A 2023 Rand study found there were 412 cases charged by the US Justice Department between 2010 and 2020. Though the number of cases has grown steadily since 2014 – reaching a peak of 80 new cases in 2019 – researchers found the legal system is largely unprepared to handle electronic harassment.

“The big hurdles that we found, as far as law enforcement goes, relate to the capabilities to investigate electronic crimes,” said Sasha Romanosky, a senior policy researcher at Rand and co-author of the study. “There’s a lot of variation across the police departments in their skills and capabilities.”

Electronic harassment and cyberstalking can be difficult for law enforcement because they often involve tech-savvy offenders who are deft at hiding their tracks and it is sometimes hard to prove the suspect actually wrote the offending message, experts said. As a result, law enforcement seldom allocates substantial resources or prioritises investigating these crimes.

In its findings, the Rand study recommended increased training on emerging technologies and investigative strategies for law enforcement. It also suggested police officers and prosecutors be taught the complicated nature of working with victims, including recognising that electronic harassment is a form of abuse.

“There is a need for training for both police and prosecutors in regards to dealing with these kinds of intimate crimes to begin with so they can build that trust with the victim,” Romanosky said. “There’s also a similar story about training for police and prosecutors when it comes to understanding digital evidence.”

The Chicago Police Department did not respond to questions about the handling of Ward’s complaints or electronic harassment cases in general.

A February 2021 police report involving Berkley’s social media behaviour states the case was closed because Ward did not want to press charges.

Both Ward and her attorney dispute the CPD report, insisting she always wanted the electronic harassment to be investigated. Their recollection is bolstered by a July 2021 email to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office in which Nathan expresses frustration with the lack of police response.

“My client has made multiple police reports and at this point we just don’t know what to do,” she wrote to a supervisor in the Cook County state’s attorney’s Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence division.

No charges were ever filed.

The Cook County state’s attorney’s office did not respond to questions.

Frustrated by the lack of help from local law enforcement, Nathan reached out to the FBI last year. Nathan shared Berkley’s Facebook posts, court records and Ward’s order of protection against Berkley with at least two federal agents, who expressed concern for Ward’s safety in emails reviewed by the Tribune. In the emails, the agents also said they were consulting with federal prosecutors, but nothing came of those conversations.

She doesn’t know how far his social media followers might go.

“It’s like no one is going to care about this until I’m dead,” Ward said. “And by then it will be too late.”

The FBI declined to answer the Tribune’s questions.

Berkley contends he has a First Amendment right to his social media messages, including one post that published part of her cellphone number and another that revealed the name of Ward’s therapist and intimated – without proof – that the counseling centre’s staff was providing him with information. He repeatedly said he does not want to physically harm Ward nor has he instructed any of his social media followers to do so.

He also stated he did nothing improper when he created a video in May 2023, using artificial intelligence, that purports to be an NBC Nightly News broadcast and proclaims Ward to be “America’s most despicable mother”. With an AI-generated voice nearly identical to anchorman Lester Holt’s delivery, the piece accuses Ward of using “every dirty trick in the book to ensure these girls are cruelly ripped away from their loving father’s embrace”.

“It took me about an hour to make,” Berkley said. “It’s not that hard for me. This is what happens when you make a nerd mad.”

Berkley and Ward agree about the basic facts of their shared history: They began dating in 2015 and moved in together in July 2018. They broke up a few months later, around the same time Ward learned she was pregnant.

Both wanted their children to be raised in a two-parent household similar to their own upbringings, so they reconciled. When the girls were born in May 2019, the couple was thrilled and, for a brief time, happy with their new life.

Berkley soon began posting pictures of their twins on social media, drawing positive responses and significant traffic to his account. On his way to becoming an influencer, he started his own line of clothing aimed at Black parents, he said.

“The girls are part of my brand,” Berkley said. “Everyone loved seeing a Black dad being so involved with his children.”

He lost access to his so-called brand, however, after Ward broke up with him and went back to her parents’ home. Police records state Berkley showed up at the house on April 5, 2020, armed with what turned out to be a pellet gun, and threatened to harm himself and Ward’s family.

Berkley was charged with violating an order of protection and aggravated battery. Ward said she later asked for the charges to be dropped so Berkley could work and help support the children.

A few months after the case was dismissed, Berkley began his social media campaign against Ward and started offering money for photographs of the girls. Berkley said most of his online support and photographs of the twins come from women.

Nathan, Ward’s lawyer, used the Facebook posts to successfully extend an order of protection that, so far, has not been served on Berkley and as such makes it harder to enforce. The attorney has been told authorities can’t find Berkley, even though he frequently shows up for court hearings via Zoom and his photograph appeared on the front page of the Miami Herald late last year as part of a glowing feature on his AI business.

A Cook County judge recently issued a body attachment for Berkley, allowing for his detainment in light of more than US$50,000 (RM235,275) in unpaid child support. Such orders are similar to bench warrants, though they are rarely executed in civil cases where the subjects live out of state.

Berkley has been representing himself in family court, using AI programs he designed to write his own motions and memorandums. He often lashes out during the Zoom hearings, accusing Ward of kidnapping his children and ignoring the judge’s order to stop posting photographs of the children on social media.

“Dominique’s case is an extreme example, but this is an issue that many, many women are struggling with every day,” said Nathan, director of family law for Ascend Justice, which helps victims of gender-based violence with legal matters at no cost. “I cannot accept that there is nothing that can be done about it.”

Law enforcement, however, isn’t the only obstacle to preventing online harassment. Facebook also failed to address Ward’s concerns, despite numerous reportings and at least five letters or memorandums from Nathan since 2022.

The social media network only took action after political consultant Joanna Klonsky learned about Ward’s struggles in late 2023 and asked Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office to help.

Public records show that Emily Miller, one of the governor’s senior advisers, reached out to a Meta lobbyist and requested Berkley’s account be deactivated. The page was removed almost immediately, raising questions about equal access and the social network’s efforts to protect users without political connections.

Miller told Meta officials that the company had to do better and requested a meeting to discuss ways to make it easier for people to seek account suspensions, according to emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

“It is troubling to us that a woman who was being so clearly harassed, and whose abusive partner was offering money to strangers to stalk her children, tried for so long to have the content removed but was unsuccessful,” Miller wrote. “When the Governor’s office stepped in to escalate on her behalf, the content was quickly found to violate community standards and the content was removed. This woman and her attorney had written communication with five Meta employees, none of whom could or would help them.”

The governor’s office declined to comment. A Meta spokesman said the company could not discuss specific cases.

Berkley reacted to the suspension by posting his offers for photographs and videos on other Facebook accounts he managed. After he thanked followers for sending him a video of his daughters at a party this past April, Miller sent another scathing email to Meta officials.

“The Governor’s office does not have time to keep people safe on Meta’s platform,” she wrote. “Meta has to figure out how to prevent people from offering money for videos of children that show their location either directly with tagging or indirectly through context clues. Meta must make this stop. Meta has, quite literally, all of the data it needs to fix this.”

Meta responded by suspending all accounts connected to Berkley, which he says has hurt his business.

After the pages were removed, a website called americasworstmother.com popped up, featuring a computer-generated image of Ward wearing an orange prison uniform, as well as her personal cellphone number and her business email address. It is unclear who owns or manages the site, as most of that information has been redacted from its registration.

Ward, for her part, says she is grateful to the Pritzker administration for intervening, but she worries about the women who don’t have a way to reach the governor’s staff. Advocates share those concerns, saying people with access – even through a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of Ward’s attorney – shouldn’t be the only ones to have protection.

“It sounds odd to say given everything she has been through, but Dominique is one of the lucky ones,” said Smith, former CEO of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “She has an attorney who is providing legal assistance for free and who is fighting for her. She had a way to reach the governor’s office. Most women aren’t so lucky. They’re suffering alone.”

Despite the support, Ward doesn’t know how this situation will end – and it frightens her. She’s not sure if she’ll ever feel safe again or when she’ll be able to stop looking over her shoulder in public.

“One thing I won’t do? I won’t be silent about this,” she said. “I will keep talking. I will keep telling my story.”

She shared her story recently at a breakfast to raise awareness for domestic violence. Before Ward spoke, the moderator asked the audience not to take pictures or post about her speech on social media. Outside the banquet room, a police officer sat watching the entrance because Berkley had made reference to the event on Facebook a few days earlier.

He never showed, but he clearly had someone there taking notes. In an interview with the Tribune, he quoted parts of Ward’s presentation verbatim and wove details of her talk into the conversation.

He lost his Facebook accounts on the same day of the speech, but he says the banishment will not stop him. He vows to keep his so-called technological war going, with plans to branch out to other platforms and rebuild his audience.

“This ends,” he says, “with me getting my kids back. There’s no other option.”

Ward also feels like she has no other options. She will keep pushing police and prosecutors to treat electronic harassment more seriously.

“People tell me just figure out a way to live with it. No, no, no, I won’t do that,” she said. “I refuse to live with it. I refuse to let my daughters live with it. This has to stop now.” – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service

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