‘People don’t want to talk about it,’ but reports of children being exploited online have spiked substantially

By Dustin Racioppi
South Coast Today
October 24, 2020

Alicia Kozak, a victim of abuse herself, is worried about the vulnerability of children amid this pandemic.

As New Jersey started locking down in the COVID-19 pandemic, a convicted rapist and registered sex offender from Oklahoma named Aaron Craiger stepped off a Greyhound bus in Atlantic City. He had a phone with child sexual abuse materials on it and graphic plans to carry out his sexual fantasies with two 11- and 12-year-old girls.

Instead, Craiger was met on March 18 by undercover law enforcement in a four-month sting that led to the arrests of 19 men, one woman and one juvenile male accused of sexually exploiting children online.

While the world has battled the health and economic effects of the coronavirus, another global issue has raged in tandem with little notice — and without the additional money and resources needed to effectively battle it, experts said. Online child abuse and exploitation, already one of the biggest and growing crime challenges nationally, has spiked as COVID-19 has forced more people indoors with abusers and children spending more time on the internet.

‘People don’t want to talk about it’

The increase in reports tracks in the United States and abroad during the pandemic, experts said. Tips to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the clearinghouse for such information in the United States, nearly doubled from 6.3 million in the first half of 2019 to 12 million through June of this year. Reports of online enticement similarly spiked during that timeframe, from 6,863 to 13,268.

“Online child exploitation right now is probably one of the biggest problems, from a crime perspective, in our country,” New Jersey State Police Lt. John Pizzuro said.

Many millions of images and videos of children and even newborn babies being raped and abused — or of children coerced into performing sex acts on camera — constantly ricochet across the internet. What may begin as seemingly innocent chatting between strangers online can lead to “sextortion,” abduction and human trafficking, according to advocates and law enforcement.

And it is abuse with lifelong effects. Victims are at greater risk of substance abuse, incarceration, mental health problems and other health issues, according to the abuse prevention nonprofit Darkness To Light. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that compared with other health problems, the cost of child maltreatment like sexual abuse is “substantial” — an annual estimated average of $210,000per child.

Even before the pandemic struck, the sexual abuse and exploitation of children was a growing threat that pervaded every corner of the country. One recent study said online creation and sharing of such material has reached a “breaking point” where reviews by the national center and law enforcement investigations “no longer scale.”

Livestreaming and the abundance of smartphone apps like TikTok, Whisper and Omegle, along with games such as Fortnite and the established popular platforms of Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, provide a massive online hunting ground for sexual predators who could be on the other side of the country or down the street.

But money for law enforcement to substantially combat the growing threat is scarce. Roughly half the $60 million authorized by Congress is spread each year among nearly three dozen task forces in the United States.

And online child abuse does not get the public interest it warrants in large part because its horrific nature is hard to fathom and difficult to discuss, experts said.

“This crime doesn’t get any attention because people don’t want to talk about it,” Pizzuro said. “And people have to realize — everyone thinks the predator is a guy who is 50 years old and driving a white van selling ice cream. Today’s predator is your priest, police officers, daycare workers, firefighters. They are your next door neighbors. And until people really realize that, the problem’s going to continue.”

Confinement presents opportunities

Once states started closing schools and issuing stay-at-home orders to try containing the coronavirus earlier this year, Alicia Kozak thought, “oh no.”

“Children are going to be home from school, they’re going to be home a lot more and they are going to be at great risk. And that happened pretty quickly,” said Kozak, who, at the age of 13 in 2002, became the first known child to be abducted by an online predator.

Others had the same reaction as Kozak.

Darkness To Light started putting together training and educational materials to help identify abuse and minimize opportunities, said its chief executive officer, Katelyn Brewer. Knowing that most abuse happens in the home, she said a rise in cases seemed inevitable.

At the same time, the lockdown measures have meant fewer opportunities for abuse to be noticed and reported by daycare workers and school teachers, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said in an interview.

“The same isolation being used to keep us safe during COVID is being exploited by people who are either abusing a domestic partner or spouse, or a young person in their care,” he said.

In addition to investigating tips of online abuse, the task forces routinely set up stings to capture would-be predators. With increased tips of abuse during the pandemic in mind, Grewal’s office oversaw “Operation Screen Capture.” The five-month sting led to 21 arrests, including Craiger, who had really been communicating with undercover officers and not pre-teen girls as he had thought.

But other cases “show the level of depravity of these predators,” Jason Molina, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations, said in a statement at the time.

They included a 40-year-old man from Keansburg, New Jersey, who allegedly manipulated a 14-year-old girl into sending him naked pictures of herself engaging in sexual acts, convinced her to carve his initials into her legs, then tricked the girl into revealing her mother’s phone number and sent those images to her mother. And a 21-year-old babysitter from Newark was accused of sexually assaulting a “very young child,” videotaping herself performing a sex act on the child and posting it on social media, Grewal’s office said.

Chronic under-funding

The Protect Our Children Act of 2008 sought to develop a national strategy against online abuse and help the country’s 61 Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces. Under the law, Congress authorized spending $60 million each year to distribute among those task forces, which are made up of about 4,500 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

But no presidential administration has fully funded the program, according to Camille Cooper, vice president of public policy at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, or RAINN. In fact, the average amount appropriated the past decade is about half what Congress authorized, nearly $29 million, by the Department of Justice’s own accounting.

That means each task force unit receives between $500,000 and $600,000 a year, leaving commanders like Pizzuro stretching their dollars for training and equipment for a small staff that works with local, county and federal law enforcement agencies.

A dozen states supplement the federal funding with a dedicated source of state revenue through Alicia’s Law — named for Kozak.

The law has paid dividends in some states so far. Wisconsin passed Alicia’s Law in 2016, adding $1 million for its internet crime task force. That money helped buy a K-9 — named Kozak — who has sniffed out and located 136 electronic storage devices, 99 of which he found after officers had already searched the scene, according to the Wisconsin attorney general’s office. More than 1,000 sexual predators were arrested in two years, according to a 2018 memo from the office.

In Idaho, the addition of $1.6 million a year allowed the state to grow its staff from four people to 15, plus add forensic examiners and a prosecutor, according to Kozak.

Kozak, now 32 and living in Monmouth County, New Jersey, was groomed online by a man pretending to be a teenager and abducted after she met him on Jan. 1, 2002. She said he took her from her hometown of Pittsburgh to Virginia, where he chained, raped and beat her — and live-streamed it — for four days. Someone who recognized her from a missing poster reported it and she was saved. Her abductor, Scott Tyree, served 17 years in prison after pleading guilty to traveling with intent to engage in sex with a minor and sexual exploitation of a minor.

Kozak began sharing her story at age 14 and has spent the last several years advocating for the law to help support internet crime task forces. One of the biggest challenges is making political leaders aware of the problem and then convincing them the extra funding is necessary, she said.

“I’ve sat in rooms with people, political leaders, and you almost want to beg them because they have the power to make a difference with their signature. They can make such a huge difference, save so many lives, if only they make the choice to,” Kozak said. “There are children right now as we are sitting here who need rescue and they are not getting that rescue, they are not being saved because of issues related to funding. And that’s unacceptable.”

Extra state funding could help states increase training and resources, but child sexual abuse materials on the internet are so widespread that fewer than 10% of detected trading and downloading of the images are investigated, said Brad Russ, executive director of the National Criminal Justice Training Center at Fox Valley Technical College in Wisconsin, which provides training and technical support to law enforcement. Law enforcement typically gets about 500,000 peer-to-peer leads a year, Cooper said.

“We could extrapolate from that, and given the fact that each dedicated officer can only do 25 cases a year, if Congress allocated half a billion a year it still wouldn’t be enough,” Cooper said. “That’s how big this problem is.”

The prevalence of child sexual abuse material — the preferred term instead of child pornography to more accurately convey the nature of the imagery — illustrates the challenge law enforcement faces.

In 1998, the year the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children launched its cyber tipline, there were more than 3,000 reports of child sexual abuse imagery; in 2018 there were 18 million, according to The New York Times. Yet funding and resources have not kept pace, Russ and other experts said.

“Only a fraction of the potential investigations are actually being worked, but a big part of it is their capacity to do that work. It’s not an unwillingness to do it; it’s that they’re overwhelmed by the scope of the problem,” said Russ, a former task force investigator. “State funding would certainly help supplement what they receive from the federal government and could allow them to be more proactive.”

Advocacy groups like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which distributes tips to state task forces, face the same challenge.

“Volume is certainly always going to be a challenge for all of us,” said Shelley Allwang, manager of the center’s child victim identification program. “But I think that’s where we can work with new technologies to detect material.”

Project VIC, a nonprofit co-founded by retired State Police Sgt. Rich Brown, is attempting to help on the technological front. The global organization works with technology companies and law enforcement to create standardized methods of gathering and analyzing data. It has built a database in the United States of 12 million child abuse images, Brown said.

The goal is to help law enforcement work more efficiently, he said. Rather than having to sift through abuse material seized from a crime scene to identify new images, officers can upload the material to the library and quickly learn what’s been recirculated. That, in turn, allows investigators to focus on the new materials and, ideally, more quickly locate and rescue victims, Brown said.

Project VIC’s primary objective is to change the approach of law enforcement to be centered on the victim rather than the crime scene or the immediate investigation of an alleged offender. Brown said he later learned that his own approach to investigations meant “there’s victims that I left behind” because he was primarily focused on the abuser.

“I knew enough to do warrants and do as many as I could, to get as many possession charges, to get as many possession charges with intent to distribute the images, but I wasn’t really schooled on dealing with victim-centric work,” Brown said.

On this trajectory, there are certainly going to be more victims.

Like the attorney general, Pizzuro thinks a comprehensive focus on internet child abuse is needed to make any significant impact. Schools, for example, should be required to teach children about digital safety much the same way they are taught about health and opioids, he said. And parents and political leaders must recognize the threat facing children throughout the state, he said.

“We can’t do this alone,” Pizzuro said. “We need not just help from our leaders, we need help from our parents and we need help from our communities.”


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