Task Force redoubles efforts on behalf of children
In observation of April being National Child Abuse Prevention Month, the Southwest Missouri Cyber Crimes Task Force (SMCCTF) is redoubling its efforts to catch predators who entice children through the Internet.
While child abuse is manifested in many forms, from beatings and neglect to serious injury and death, members of the SMCCTF are focusing efforts on catching those who prey on children for sexual exploitation.
Detective Brian Martin, a Barry County deputy, is one member of the task force that covers 13 counties in southwest Missouri.
"We say we cover 13 counties, but a lot of times there is an overlap," Martin said. "An investigation may start in one county and end up in another part of the state that is not in our area. With technology, some of these cases even go overseas, where we have no jurisdiction and those countries do not respect or uphold our laws."
The seven-man investigation team is, at times, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of reports they receive.
"Often times, it's not until a child has made contact with a predator and sent an incriminating photo that we are even aware of the situation," Martin said. "That's because the predator starts demanding more and more and if the child resists, starts threatening to release the photos to their parents, their school and on social media sites. It's then the child will confide in an adult, and we are able to get a handle on these predators."
The team investigates Internet enticement of children, promotion and possession of child pornography and trafficking of children and terroristic threats, including threats of violence at schools.
"We're busier than we've ever been," Martin said. "Before home computers, predators would have to order 'paper-wrapped magazines' from places such as Denmark, and those were subject to a postal inspection. Technology makes it easy for the predator. They get up of a morning, grab their cup of coffee and turn on the computer. [Child porn] is out there if you know where to look."
Part of the problem today comes from high school students.
"We did a presentation at an assembly in Neosho and the investigator asked if any of the 17-year-old boys out there had pictures of their 16-year-old naked girlfriends on their phones," Martin said. "There was some nervous laughter and he said, 'Congratulations, you're all under arrest for possession of child pornography.' The next sound you hear is all these cell phones being slipped out of pockets and the beeps of photos being deleted.
"The greatest promoters of child porn in America are the kids themselves," Martin said. "They think their boyfriends are the only ones who will see the photos, but it gets passed around to the football team. Then to the basketball team. Then it's on someone's social media page or on YouTube. That's how predators get photos of these kids."
Martin said the task force receives 10 to 15 reports a month on that type of activity alone, and it takes time to track kids down.
"Every kid involved in that kind of activity is referred to the juvenile office," Martin said, "and they are cracking down on that sort of thing in the 39th Circuit."
The problem doesn't end with the photo circulating among high school students or social media sites.
"That's how predators get these photos," Martin said. "Then they start befriending the victim and demanding more and more. We call it 'sex-tortion.' If a victim doesn't cooperate, they will set up a web-site called 'Ugly Suzie' and post compromising photos there and start e-mailing them to family members and every contact in their phone or on their Facebook account. They totally harass and humiliate their victims."
Another problem with the perpetrators of these crimes is their deviant behavior is not limited to photos.
"Nearly every predator we interview admits to having a live victim," Martin said. "They're not just looking at pictures -- they're getting ideas. When the story breaks in the media, other victims will usually come forward with stories of what the perpetrator did to them."
Occasionally, the task force will run into evidence that puts the perpetrator behind bars for life.
"Like those kids that sexually molested the unconscious young girl and posted the video online just recently, they have posted incriminating evidence of their participation in the crime," Martin said. "We have been able to recover several videos of perpetrators trying to incapacitate a young victim and sexually assault them. Unfortunately, when something like that happens in a home and there is an adult present, they are failing to be the adult. Kids don't need more friends. They need parents to guide and discipline them."
The federal penalties for trafficking in child pornography are tough.
"We always try to get our cases before a federal judge," Martin said. "In the federal system, if the predator gets life, that means life. The only way he will leave that place is in a body bag."
Although professionals such as teachers, clergy and mental health professionals are mandated reporters, they sometimes fail to report suspicions, citing they are not certain anything was really going on.
"It's sad that people don't want to be involved," Martin said. "It's what these reporters do, or don't do, that can make or break a kid's life."
Martin said anyone can report suspected abuse to a hotline, at 1-800-392-3738. The Missouri Children's Division members staff the hotline 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They will take the information and respond to child abuse and neglect. Calls may be made anonymously.
"We wish they would leave their names though," Martin said. "It helps us contact them later for more information during the investigation."
Martin urges parents to make sure they talk to their children of the online dangers and what constitutes inappropriate behavior.
"Parents also need to keep updated on the latest technologies and the Internet, make sure their kids are not visiting inappropriate chat rooms or sites," Martin said. "They should also never post anything online that is not open for the world to see. Once it's out there, it's online forever. Kids should know never respond to messages that are suggestive, obscene or make them feel uncomfortable. Never meet an 'online friend' in a place or situation that would make a child vulnerable.
"Finally, report any suspicious activity to a local law enforcement agency immediately," Martin said. "Our goal is to keep our children safe."