April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and one local agency is redoubling its efforts to protect children locally.
The Missouri Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force has a regional team, the Southwest Missouri Cyber Crimes Task Force, which is comprised of five officers that cover Barry, Lawrence, McDonald, Jasper, Dade, Barton, Polk, Cedar, Vernon, St. Clair, Hickory and Benton counties.
"This is a full-time position," said James Smith, who works cyber crimes from the Cassville Police Department. "We are busy all the time. Each of the five team members averages between 50 and 60 cases per year."
Tracking child predators is not an easy task.
"We monitor Internet traffic, looking for images of child pornography and trying to identify the victims," Smith said. "Each photo has its own 'fingerprint,' and our program looks for hashtags, known images and identified victims."
All newly surfacing images are sent directly to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which serves as the clearinghouse for child identification.
"When we have a suspect, we make a copy of their computer hard drive," said Brian Martin, an ICAC task force member working out of the Barry County Sherif's Office. "Then we have a computer forensic expert examine the drive for images of child pornography. Right now, we need at least two additional forensic experts. Our wait time for getting one computer examined is about six to eight months, and many suspects have three or four computers."
Sometimes, the hard drives are encrypted, which can take forensic experts longer to crack.
"As more of the country gets high speed Internet, the more interest in this kind of thing is generated, and the more reports we receive," Martin said. "Generally, we find that a suspect has a general area of preference, either young girls or boys, or children under a certain age. That's the type of images they will buy, sell or collect. Some of the people we have arrested have 50,000 to 60,000 thousand images."
One way task force members track the trading of images is through file sharing programs.
"These types of programs are also a way to share computer viruses," Martin said. "But there are people out there that are constantly looking for new porn. They never get enough."
That can often translate into danger for young family members of close neighbors of the sexual predator.
"Most of the suspects we arrest are gainfully employed, members of the community, and for the most part, people you would never suspect," Martin said. "But a government study of convicted Internet offenders, from the Butner Clinic, indicates that 85 percent of the offenders had committed acts of sexual abuse against children. In that study, they found approximately 1,100 to 1,500 unreported victims and over 6,000 offenses from the 155 inmates who volunteered to participate in the study."
The Butner Clinic is the only residential program in the country for treatment of sexual offenders in the federal prison system.
"We arrested one man in Barry County who confessed to raping a girl when he was a child," Martin said. "He was never punished for the crime and was caught again raping another girl before he was a teenager. Again, he was not punished. From that point on, he told me, all he wanted to do was have sex with kids. He ended up molesting his own children, the children of his neighbors, his children's friends and his grandchildren.
"Predators find kids that need attention and they groom them for the purpose of having sex," Martin said. "That's how they operate."
The national statistics are frightening.
"Over 2,000 children go missing every year," Martin said. "They just disappear.
"We are rescuing about 500 a year from the Dallas, Texas, area," he continued. "Sexual predators are also dealing in human trafficking of children. Human trafficking is the third highest offense in the world."
While technology is making communications among family and friends much easier than in years past, it is also making it easier for sexual predators to victimize children and young teens. Parents can take steps to protect their own children from becoming victims.
"There is no reason for a child to take a cell phone to bed," Martin said. "My grandmother used to say, 'No good comes from being outside at 2 a.m.. With this, [he waved his phone], they're outside. They bring the outside right into their bedrooms and into bed with them."
Smith said many young teens are self-victimizing by sending intimate pictures of themselves to their boyfriends or girlfriends via their cell phones.
"The pictures then get out and are circulated among all of their friends and acquaintances," Smith said. "What these young people don't know is that they are not going to be molested by a stranger."
"Kids don't need more friends," Martin said. "They need parents. Parents need to monitor their kids' cell phone texts, messages and friends, as well as their Internet usage."
Martin also cautioned against allowing young children to have unrestricted Internet use in their bedrooms.
"Predators look for their victims on social networking sites and in chat rooms," Martin said. "Many times it doesn't take long for these predators to set up a meeting with a child. They are con men. They are master manipulators."
For more information on missing children in Missouri, visit missingkids.com.
To report an incident involving a child cyber crime, contact the regional ICAC Task Force at 417-623-3131, ext. 465.