Into the Air

Into the Air

How an intervention by Plano parents saved their daughter’s life

BY KARYN BRODSKY

What if you learned that your teen planned to run away to a foreign country to marry someone she met in an Internet chat room? For John and Stephanie Baldwin of Plano, TX, the threat was very real.

Mackenzie Baldwin’s junior year in high school was on a successful track with good grades, an active social life and a close group of friends. Toward the end of the year, however, things began to change. “Mackenzie pulled away from friends, and she started pulling away from us slightly,” says John. “Stephanie and I chalked it up to teenage rebelliousness.”

That summer, Mackenzie asked John if she could purchase a Qur’an, an Islamic religious text. While it seemed an odd request, John allowed her to buy one with the condition that Mackenzie share her findings with him. Friendly discussion moved quickly to debates and arguments. Mackenzie’s personality changed, and she completely pulled away from her family, her friends and her interests. Senior year came, and Mackenzie did not date or attend any dances, including prom. She threw herself into her part time job, working many hours and saving money.

The change in Mackenzie was not lost on her younger brothers, Luke, age 12 and Michael, age 10. John and Stephanie tried to shield them from arguments with Mackenzie, but the boys could sense tension in the home. Eventually, John and Stephanie sought family counseling, and the take-away was to accept Mackenzie unconditionally without doing anything to make her feel rejected.

In May of Mackenzie’s senior year, John received a phone call that would forever change his and Stephanie’s lives. The father of one of Mackenzie’s close friends called John to alert him that Mackenzie had been seduced in an online chat room by “Aadam,” a Muslim from Kosovo. John was told that Mackenzie was “engaged” to Aadam and planned to travel overseas in the next 25 days to marry him. Another friend Madison, who also knew Mackenzie’s plan, alerted her mother and asked that she contact the Baldwins. The girls said that if her parents discovered her plan, Mackenzie was prepared to leave immediately – in as little as two weeks. “These girls saved her life; they independently realized they couldn’t live with themselves if something happened to her,” says Stephanie. “It took a lot of courage to do that.” The girls didn’t want to jeopardize their friendship with Mackenzie, so they requested confidentiality.

For the Baldwins, the puzzle pieces came together. They realized their daughter was being manipulated and was in danger but had to keep their knowledge of her plan a secret.

A friend who worked at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport spoke to the airport police chief, who put the Baldwins in touch with agent Kevin Sheridan of the FBI. After ruling out radicalization, Sheridan said Mackenzie was in danger, as Kosovo was known for human sex trafficking. However, no crime had been committed, and Mackenzie, now 18, was considered an adult and able to act without her parents’ consent. Sheridan began to hatch a plan.

Using a “scared straight intervention,” Sheridan and two other agents came to the Baldwin home, presented all of Mackenzie’s information from her passport and told her that what she did was a felony. They said they were there to protect U.S. citizens, including her. After the meeting, she told John and Stephanie all the details, not knowing about her parents’ knowledge. However, the intervention was not enough. Mackenzie asked if her parents could bring Aadam to the U.S. instead.

It took another meeting with Sheridan to convince Mackenzie that Aadam was a manipulator. Sheridan predicted Aadam’s next moves, and when they held true, Mackenzie finally realized he was using her. “Mackenzie broke contact with him but did it on her own,” says John. “She went to counseling and didn’t mention it for about five months. Finally, she asked us to tell her what happened.”

Today, Mackenzie is a happy, well-adjusted 22-year-old college student pursuing a double major in psychology and child development. Through counseling she realized that her relationship with Aadam was an addictive one, which could occur with someone in a foreign country or in the U.S.

Rather than hide this story out of fear or embarrassment, the Baldwins are bravely speaking out. Mackenzie pays it forward by speaking to youth groups about online dangers and encourages teens to come forward if they suspect something is awry with their friends. She feels motivated to speak because someone else could be the next victim. John and Stephanie also speak and impress the importance of turning to a parent, teacher or other adult when something doesn’t seem right. John and Mackenzie co-authored a book about the family’s experience, titled Almost Gone, Twenty-Five Days and One Chance to Save Our Daughter. 

Stephanie, John, Mackenzie and Madison shared their story on the Today Show with Megyn Kelly. The show also featured Internet safety specialist, Regina Lewis, who shared a list of safety tips:

• Have a team of surrogates who are watching out for your children, such as religious leaders,  friends, neighbors, relatives, teachers

• Watch out for changes in behavior

• Monitor social media and text messages

• Use tracking devices

• Inspect bank statements

Mackenzie met Aadam on a website called “Omegle,” which was popular with high school students at the time. “Though we had a lot of controls on our home computers, Mackenzie used her phone to go online and connected to Wi-Fi at school,” Stephanie says. “You can only do so much with computer limitations, so it’s important for parents to make kids aware of dangers and educate them about predictable behavior.” For Stephanie and John Baldwin’s courage and tenacity and their work in raising awareness about Internet predators, we present our Very Inspiring Parent award.

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