The number of child sex exploitation cases is rapidly rising in the Washington, D.C., region, and so, too, is pressure to find new tools for law enforcement to catch the predators.
U.S. Justice Department records obtained by the News4 I-Team in a public records request show more than 300 federal prosecutions for child sex crimes in D.C., Maryland and Virginia since 2016, including cases in which devices capable of holding tens of thousands of child sex images were seized.
“It happens everywhere, in the smallest towns and the biggest cities,” said Steve Grocki, chief of the Justice Department’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section.
“(Predators) can very easily be communicating with people in Russia, China and anywhere in the world," Grocki said. "It’s so easy online now, and language is not a barrier.”
The increase in prosecutions comes amid fast-evolving technology to record and share exploitative images, according to federal officials.
“Every person walks around 24 hours a day with a high definition photography device,” Grocki said.
Data shared with the I-Team by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children show the Alexandria, Virginia-based organization received 10.2 million reports of child sex exploitation through its cyber tip line in 2017. Those tips constituted one-third of all tips received in the organization’s history.
“Sometimes we see people actively seeking out relationships with people who have custody of children, to be able to exploit the children,” said Lauren Coffren, a director of the organization’s Exploited Children Division.
The local cases reviewed by the I-Team included defendants who worked as teachers, sports coaches, diplomats and day care providers. In some of the cases, the alleged predators were suspected of exploiting children to produce sex images as a means to get access to larger networks of photos collected by child sex predators.
New Tools and Techniques to Catch Predators
Amid the increase in cases, law enforcement officials are seeking new tools and techniques to catch predators. The FBI and law enforcement officials in Connecticut are pioneering the use of K-9s to help detect and locate hidden electronic devices during the searches of the homes of suspected predators. About two dozen K-9s are currently deployed by police nationwide.
The I-Team was allowed access to one of those K-9s training at the FBI’s New York City field office. Harley and her handler, Detective Brett Hochron, found a series of small memory cards, external drives and tablets hidden in furniture and walls of a large conference space.
“Devices are very small," Hochron said. "They are very easy to hide and very difficult to find. Everybody has a junk drawer. In a few years, everyone is going to have this (K-9) asset.”
Officials with D.C.-area Internet Crimes Against Children task forces said they are exploring plans to acquire and deploy the trained K-9s. New state laws in Maryland and Virginia boosted funding for state police agencies that handle child exploitation cases. Alicia’s Law passed in Maryland in 2016, after heavy lobbying from safety organizations wanting to bolster police staffing and reduce wait times for forensics exams of electronic devices from suspected predators.
The law is named after Alicia Kozakiewicz, the survivor of a 2002 kidnapping near her home in Pittsburgh. She was held captive and sexually abused in Herndon, Virginia. Images of the abuse were shared online by a man who was convicted and sentenced to federal prison for the crime.
Kozakiewicz, who now works as a motivational speaker, successfully lobbied to pass Alicia’s Law in 11 states.
“Eleven states isn’t enough," she said. "We have to get it passed everywhere."
“There will always be evil people who do evil things," Kozakiewicz said. “Prevention is key. So is educating kids."
Kozakiewicz has worked collaboratively with the National Association to Protect Children, a national pro-child, anti-crime organization. She credits the organization’s work with helping secure passage of the new state laws.
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
Recent federal law helped the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children strengthen its database of suspected child exploitation victims. The organization, which helps local and federal law enforcement investigate cases of suspected predators, said it has identified more than 14,000 victims.
Internet providers and social media providers now are required to report suspected exploitative images shared on their platforms to the organization’s cyber tip line. The number of tips has grown exponentially in the months since.
“These are not people who are hunting down and find your children," Coffren said. "They are often people who have access to your children already.”
Data shared with the I-Team shows 10 million of the 28 million tips received by the organization since 1998 were received last year.
Reported by Scott MacFaralane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.