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Back to Archives | Back to March 2007 Contents 

Project Safe Childhood

By Paul J. McNulty, Deputy Attorney General of the United States, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C

he development of the Internet has dramatically improved the ability to gather and share information. Like many inventions, however, the Internet can be used for both good and bad purposes. In the area of child exploitation, the Internet has generated an explosion in the prevalence of child pornography and the pursuit of children by online predators. The law enforcement community—local, state, and federal—must continue to mobilize to meet this threat.

Project Safe Childhood (PSC) is an initiative to combat the frightening increase in the number of online child exploitation crimes. Designed and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice, PSC seeks to empower federal, state, and local law enforcement officers with tools they need to investigate these crimes. PSC is, however, about more than sharing information and coordinating investigations. As Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has described it, PSC is about all of us becoming brothers and sisters in a common cause, standing shoulder to shoulder, like sentinels at the watch.

A Spreading Epidemic

In the past, criminals who created or collected child pornography or who tried to entice children for sexual purposes were restricted by their own awareness of their deviancy. The grotesque nature of child sexual abuse and the corresponding fear of detection kept many sexual offenders from associating in the physical world with similarly minded criminals.1 Cyberspace, however, allows for a previously unavailable degree of anonymity. As a result, sexual offenders have flocked to online communities to share images of child sexual abuse and to discuss their barbaric behavior.2

Quick Facts
This online interaction among sexual offenders has greatly facilitated the creation, distribution, and collection of child pornography. In addition, it has coincided with an increase in the amount of predatory behavior that children are now subject to while online. These frightening developments are reflected by the dramatic escalation in the reports of potential child exploitation made to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children through its CyberTipline, a hotline for reporting child sexual exploitation ( From 1998 to 2005 the number of CyberTipline annual reports ballooned from 4,560 to 70,768, a 1,452 percent increase.3

Law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local levels have aggressively responded to the rise in online child exploitation crimes. For example, 46 federally funded Internet crimes against children (ICAC) task forces, comprising more than 1,000 affiliated state and local organizations, have been created across the United States since 1998.4 In the first seven years of the ICAC task force program, 7,328 arrests were made as a result of their investigations.5

Federal agencies have also stepped up efforts to combat the proliferation of online child exploitation. The number of arrests made by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as part of its Innocent Images National Initiative rose from 103 in 1998 to 1,649 in 2005.6 During this same time period, child exploitation investigations by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigative Division resulted in thousands of arrests inside and outside the United States.7

Law enforcement agencies at all levels have reacted to the dramatic increase in online child exploitation crimes by successfully investigating and arresting more criminals. Unfortunately, the resources these agencies can devote to such investigations have not similarly increased. Law enforcement agencies can only keep pace with and begin to quarantine the spreading epidemic of online child exploitation by generating greater investigative efficiency and by proactively insulating children from online dangers.

A Coordinated Response

Project Safe Childhood creates greater investigative efficiency and insulates children from online dangers by focusing on five objectives:

  • Integrating the efforts of PSC partners to investigate and prosecute child exploitation cases, and to identify and rescue child victims

  • Providing for local PSC participation in national initiatives

  • Increasing federal investigations and prosecutions in child exploitation cases
  • Providing appropriate training to law enforcement officials

  • Coordinating local public awareness and education campaigns8

To accomplish these objectives, PSC partnerships are forming in each federal district, coordinated by the U.S. attorney. PSC partnerships create a platform from which online child exploitation can be efficiently attacked from several directions. This platform is supported by three legs: one, state and local investigators and prosecutors; two, federal investigators and prosecutors; and, three, nongovernmental organizations and private citizens. The stability of the platform is directly dependent upon the contribution of each leg.

The efforts of state and local investigators are critical to the success of Project Safe Childhood. State and local investigators can provide geographic saturation that federal investigators are not capable of providing. Moreover, as evidenced by the success of ICAC investigations, many state and local investigators possess the training and experience to successfully investigate Internet-facilitated child exploitation crimes.

One of the primary goals of Project Safe Childhood is to increase the opportunities for additional local, state, and federal investigators to receive advanced training. Such training will further broaden the scope of PSC efforts by showing more investigators how to obtain, preserve, and review computer-based evidence in child exploitation investigations. The knowledge gained from such training is not restricted to investigating online child exploitation. Because the Internet is used to facilitate many different types of crime, including child exploitation, identity theft, and acts of terrorism, the advanced training investigators receive as a result of PSC can help protect communities from people with multiple criminal designs.

As members of PSC partnerships, federal prosecutors and investigators will actively coordinate their efforts with those of their state and local partners. In doing so, federal partners contribute a broad geographic scope, capable of crossing state and national borders, to local PSC efforts. This geographic scope, when combined with the geographic saturation of state and local investigators, allows PSC partners to address acts of child exploitation from multiple directions.

Another important benefit of these partnerships is the imposition of significant sentences on dangerous sexual offenders. A federal defendant convicted of receiving or distributing child pornography is subject to a mandatory minimum penalty of five years imprisonment.9 A federal defendant convicted of producing child pornography is subject to a mandatory minimum penalty of 15 years’ imprisonment.10 And, as a result of the passage of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act in July 2006, a federal defendant convicted of using the Internet to entice a child to engage in sexual activity is now subject to a mandatory minimum penalty of 10 years’ imprisonment.11

These federal penalties are significantly greater than the penalties some states routinely impose after convictions for similar crimes, but there is variability even among offenses.12 Because Project Safe Childhood seeks to ensure that the optimal amount of punishment is imposed in child exploitation cases, federal prosecutors are encouraged to work with state and local investigators and prosecutors to determine when child exploitation cases should be referred to the U.S. attorneys’ offices for federal prosecution or prosecuted under the state system.

In many instances, federal prosecutions of a person accused of sexual crimes can occur in addition to state prosecutions of the same person on related charges. For example, a sexual offender who molests a child and records images of the abuse or who otherwise possesses child pornography could be prosecuted for the contact offense in state court and for the child pornography production or possession offense in federal court. In such cases involving a victim who is unable to testify, a federal prosecution could still go forward because the testimony of the victim is not usually necessary to gain a conviction for a child pornography offense.

A Vigilant Community

Arrests and prosecutions cannot, by themselves, make the Internet a safe place. Not all sexual offenders who are willing to use the Internet to perpetrate their crimes can be apprehended prior to their criminal acts. For that reason, PSC partnerships will be asked to develop community outreach strategies to make communities vigilant and aware of online dangers. An important part of that vigilance will be to teach families how they can help prevent such crimes.

The central component of a PSC community outreach strategy is a local public awareness and education campaign. Police departments across the nation have participated in such campaigns to combat drug abuse and violence, and law enforcement officers know their communities. Project Safe Childhood encourages local police departments to engage in such campaigns, along with their state and federal partners, to alert children and their parents to Internet dangers. A creative Internet safety campaign can reach children and their parents through school-related presentations. A starting point is available at (

Effective community outreach strategies will involve many nongovernmental organizations. Perhaps the most prominent of them is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). Through its CyberTipline and the assistance it provides to investigators seeking to identify and locate victims of child exploitation, NCMEC is a vital contributor to the law enforcement strategies of all PSC partnerships. In addition, NCMEC’s Internet safety specialists and the educational material they have developed make substantial contributions to PSC community outreach efforts nationwide.

A Shared Community

The Internet is everyone’s community, and all law enforcement agencies share the responsibility for policing it. For many children in our cities and towns, the Internet is Main Street. They are more familiar with the people they meet online than they are with many of the people they meet in the offline world. Unfortunately, this familiarity may extend only to the online personas of their Internet companions. In all too many instances, an Internet companion is actually a predator intent on abusing a child and willing to travel across the street or across the continent to do so.

Under such conditions, it is simply unacceptable to expect online child exploitation crimes to be investigated and prosecuted solely by a single jurisdiction. In light of its global scale and devastating local effect, online child exploitation should not be treated as solely a national or a local crime. Instead, online child exploitation crimes must be identified and addressed as crimes that are committed in the shared community created by the Internet.

This shared community is as local as a house down the street with a personal computer and Internet service. It is as global as a commercial child pornography Web site operated from another country and financially supported through a payment processing service in another state. As a result, online child exploitation crimes routinely involve victims and perpetrators who are states or even countries apart.

The shared community created by the Internet is not entirely compatible with the jurisdictional lines created by state and national borders. We must therefore adapt the way we investigate, prosecute, and prevent online crimes. Project Safe Childhood represents such an adaptation. As a platform from which federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies and nongovernmental organizations can effectively work together, PSC allows multijurisdictional crimes to be efficiently addressed across state and national borders.

The Department of Justice invites all law enforcement agencies to contribute to their local PSC partnerships. We must work together at all levels to protect our children. Common sense demands it, and Project Safe Childhood will make it happen. ■


1Max Taylor and Ethel Quayle, Child Pornography: An Internet Crime (New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2003), 9–10, 16–17.
2Taylor and Quayle, Child Pornography, 9–10, 16–17.
3U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Attorney General, Project Safe Childhood: Protecting Children from Online Exploitation and Abuse (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, May 2006), 6–7, , November 21, 2006.
4U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Attorney General, Project Safe Childhood, 4–5. Law enforcement organizations interested in learning more about the ICAC program or their regional task force are encouraged to call Ron Laney, associate administrator of the Child Protection Division of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, at 202-616-3637.
5U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Attorney General, Project Safe Childhood, 4–5.
6U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Attorney General, Project Safe Childhood, 3.
7U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Attorney General, Project Safe Childhood, 4.
8U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Attorney General, Project Safe Childhood: Protecting Children from Online Exploitation and Abuse (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, May 2006), 18–20, , November 22, 2006.
9See 18 U.S.C. 2252(a)(2).
10See 18 U.S.C. 2251(a).
11See 18 U.S.C. 2422(b).
12See 18 U.S.C. 2252(b)(2), 2252A(b)(2).



From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 3, March 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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