Child exploitation cases merit federal prosecution. My office files dozens of child exploitation cases every year. Each year, the ages of the children in the images get younger, and an increasing number of offenders use online platforms to target children.
The label “child pornography” fails to capture the true essence of the crimes.
More accurately described, our prosecutions involve images that depict sexual violence and rape of children by depraved adult perpetrators. Even one image of this violence would evoke tears, nausea or anger from a parent, grandparent or any human being. Yet federal defendants record and possess videos and images in the hundreds and thousands. They barter and trade images amongst themselves like collectible sports cards.
Adult perpetrators do not limit themselves to images of rape. Some of them creep online through social media in search of child victims. They assume a false online persona, groom victims with gifts and promises, and blackmail children by coaxing them to send embarrassing sexualized images to the perpetrators. Parents and those who try to guard against this conduct may not realize that no boundary or safety wall exists that adult perpetrators cannot cross to meet a child with the intent to sexually abuse the victim.
During the pandemic, parents have taken on more and more during stay at home directives. Work, school and parenting blend into demanding days. With everyone at home together, we may expect that the threat of child sexual exploitation would diminish. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation reports that COVID-19 school closings may present increased risk of child exploitation. Children will potentially have an increased online presence and be in a position that puts them at an inadvertent risk. In order for the victimization to stop, children must have the courage to come forward to someone they trust — like a parent, teacher, caregiver or law enforcement. Understandably, the embarrassment of being enticed or coerced to engage in unwelcome behavior often prevents children from coming forward.
As a community, we can take measures to help educate and prevent children from becoming victims of child predators and sexual exploitation during this time of national emergency. We should help our young people come forward and report this predatory behavior when it happens to them or their friends. Offenders may have hundreds of victims around the world, so coming forward to help law enforcement identify offenders may prevent countless other incidents of sexual exploitation.
We can discuss internet safety with children of all ages, review and approve games and apps, and generally monitor internet usage. Children should understand that images posted online exist permanently. We should assure our children that it is not a crime for a child to send sexually explicit images to someone if they are compelled or coerced to do so — sometimes fear of being “in trouble” causes a child to hesitate to tell a trusted adult, because they feel guilty about their conduct. We want to ensure that children know they should report to a trusted adult when someone asks them to engage in sexual activity.
We should not forget about physical dangers that exist offline, as well, and watch over our children as our community transitions back to more normalized activity beyond the pandemic. Let’s teach our children about body safety and boundaries. Parents should continue to be mindful and screen those who provide childcare or babysitting, and consider safety precautions during playdates and overnight visits.
The adult perpetrators are out there, and we can all do more to prevent crimes against our children.