Child sexual abuse is preventable, yet the last decade the number of children exploited over the internet has grown substantially, and the federal government, technology companies, law enforcement, and the community-at-large are not doing enough to prevent, stop, or reduce the problem. The New York Times article, “The Internet Is Overrun with Images of Child Sexual Abuse. What Went Wrong” and “An Explosion in Online Child Sex Abuse: What You Need to Know” details the increase of online child sexual abuse and exploitation and the failure of technology platforms and agencies responsible for reporting and investigation to handle this epidemic. Based on the New York Times article:

The numbers themselves are staggering, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children:
• Over 3,000 child sexual abuse imagery was reported in 1998
• Around 2000, there were 100,000 reports of child sexual abuse imagery
• In 2014, there were over 1 million reports of child sexual abuse
• In 2018, over 45 million images and videos were flagged as child sexual abuse on the dark web

Technology companies like Facebook and Google reported a record of 45 million online photos and videos of child sexual abuse in 2018. They are legally required to report images of child abuse when they discover them and not to investigate them. Although Facebook and Google have stepped up surveillance of their platforms, other companies fail to work with law enforcement when they are conducting investigations. Tumblr was named as being the “most problematic [of technology] companies,” and not quick to respond to urgent inquiries from authorities. Part of the problem with catching perpetrators includes the ability of offenders to cover their tracks, mask their locations, utilization of encryption techniques, and posting on the dark web. Law enforcement have a short window to get data before offenders destroy it.

Eleven years ago, Protect Our Children Act (P.L. 110-401) was passed in 2008, and reauthorized in 2012, to address today’s problem of child sexual abuse through technology. Many agencies responsible for investigating and preventing the exploitation of child sexual abuse imaginary have described the current issue as a lack of adequate responses and supports from federal government and technology companies. The Department of Justice (DOJ) role is to prevent and investigate child exploitation crimes and coordinate with local, state, and tribal entities on efforts related to combating child sexual abuse; however, they failed even to produce mandatory monitoring reports for Congress. DOJ funds the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which serves as a clearinghouse and a “go-between for the tech companies and the authorities” described the system as “a breaking point” and stated that they were ill-equipped for the expanding demand. They review reports and coordinate efforts with the federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.

Another problem that was pointed out in the article was that many agencies prioritize their focus on combating this epidemic, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children focuses efforts on stopping the online distribution of photos and videos secondary to rescuing children. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is focusing on investigating images of infants and toddlers, where one of every ten agents in Homeland Security’s investigative section is now assigned to child sexual exploitation cases. Also, these agencies have high turnover as well due to the secondary traumatic stress that employees experience investigating every day the sexually abuse of children.

The 2008 legislation was authorized to be appropriated at $60 million a year and has received inadequate funding for combating child sexual abuse. Survivor and advocate, Alicia Kozakiewicz, stated that because the federal bill was not funded that “it didn’t mean anything.” Special Agent Flint Waters from Wyoming presented before Congress in 2007 reported in the article that “we are overwhelmed, we are underfunded, and we are drowning in the tidal wave of tragedy,” when describing the crimes that are investigated. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), who sponsored the 2008 legislation, stated that she was unaware of the extent of the federal government’s failures and sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr, who failed to appoint a senior executive-level official to implement a national strategy for child exploitation prevention.

To report online child sexual abuse, contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-843-5678.

About the Author:

John Sciamanna is CWLA's Vice President of Public Policy.

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