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Back to Archives | Back to March 2007 Contents 

Child Pornography: A Closer Look

By Michelle K. Collins, Director, Exploited Child Unit, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Alexandria, Virginia



hese are the true stories of three children who were not only sexually abused but further humiliated when their abusers photographed and videotaped the moment of victimization. Some abusers take photographs so they can use them for sexual gratification in the future. Others use these sexually abusive images to coerce their child victims into silence. In recent years, a growing number of offenders indicated that they were motivated to produce these vile images to enhance their status with other child abusers on the Internet.


NCMEC Logo
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has a long history of assisting law enforcement with cases of child sexual exploitation. NCMEC is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that works in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). NCMEC’s congressionally mandated CyberTipline, a reporting mechanism for child sexual exploitation, has handled more than 440,000 leads. Based in Alexandria, Virginia, NCMEC is proud to have 12 federal law enforcement personnel working in the building to assist with cases of missing and exploited children.

NCMEC’s Child Victim Identification Program (CVIP) serves as the national clearinghouse for child pornography cases across the United States. NCMEC is the central repository for information regarding children who have been identified as victims seen in child pornography. Not only is case and image information stored at NCMEC, the CVIP analysts have extensive institutional knowledge of the pictures and suspects due to years of working with child pornography material. All of this information may be useful to law enforcement agencies, whether they work these cases daily or are conducting their first investigation of child sexual exploitation.


Quick Facts
Offenders and Victims

There are several misconceptions about child pornography. Some believe child pornography refers to baby-in-the-bathtub pictures and others are under the impression that child pornography images are 19-year-old women dressed up in pigtails and schoolgirl uniforms. Neither of these descriptions constitutes child pornography. Child pornography is not pictures of teenagers romping on a beach; it is pictures of children, often babies in diapers, being violently molested. Not only did these children suffer the initial sexual victimization, they will continue to be exploited every time their image is traded online among individuals who use these images to fuel their sexual desire for children. These traded images are photographs of actual crime scenes.

As a result of NCMEC’s collecting data regarding child pornography investigations in the United States and around the world, a greater knowledge has been gained regarding the perpetrators of these crimes. In almost all cases tracked by NCMEC, the abuser was an adult with legitimate access to the child victim. In fact, in those cases where the child has been identified by law enforcement, 35 percent of the abusers were a parent of the child victim. Twenty-eight percent of the abusers were neighbors or trusted family friends of the child victim. Although it may be difficult to accept, the offenders who photograph the sexual abuse of children are typically in a position of authority in the children’s life. Not surprisingly, few children disclose their abuse to a trusted adult.

Another disturbing trend investigators have noticed is the dramatic drop in the age of the child victims seen in these sexually abusive images. According to data collected by NCMEC, 58 percent of identified child victims are prepubescent. Sadly, 6 percent of the identified children were only infants at the time the sexual abuse occurred and the images were produced. And although NCMEC does collect information regarding children from other countries who were used in the production of child pornography, most of the children known to NCMEC are from the United States.


Law Enforcement’s Response

Over the last decade, law enforcement has proven itself highly effective in identifying and apprehending individuals who transmit child pornography on the Internet. On a federal level, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) are working these crimes effectively. In addition, strong networks of trained law enforcement professionals are working on the state and local levels through the 46 federally funded task forces devoted to stopping Internet crimes against children (ICAC). The successful teamwork among these agencies is reflected in the large number of arrests they make each year.

In the last eight years, there has been a collective awakening in law enforcement regarding the need to identify the children seen in the images. Today, law enforcement considers as part of its mission not only using the child pornography images to charge a defendant but also scrutinizing the images for any possible clues that could lead to the location of the abuse. Many of these children are being abused in the basements and living rooms of their homes across the United States. Few of these children will disclose their abuse to a trusted adult. Thus, in recent years, investigators working child pornography investigations have begun to examine each disturbing image and video to find a clue that could lead to the rescue of a child from an abusive situation.


History of CVIP

In 2002, as a result of the court decision in Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition (535 U.S. 234, 2002), the Supreme Court decided that computer-generated child pornography was not considered illegal if no actual child was used in the production of the images. The Supreme Court maintained that these images are not criminal because there is no live victim, hence no real child.

This ruling allowed defendants to argue that the child pornography images found on their computers are actually images of virtual kids and not real children. In response to this defense, many prosecutors try to establish the actual identity of the children seen in the illegal images. Since determining the identity of children in child pornography may be difficult or even impossible, this presents additional challenges when prosecuting cases. CVIP is playing a critical role in helping to ensure the successful conviction of child pornographers.

CVIP analysts, in cooperation with in-house federal law enforcement partners, work with law enforcement and prosecutors to ensure convictions of child pornographers. Most importantly, CVIP analysts closely examine the heinous images for any clues that might point to a location of the abuse. The efforts of law enforcement across the country have been astounding. In the first four years of CVIP, law enforcement has notified NCMEC of more than 900 child victims rescued from the hands of their abusers.


Evidence Reviews

Local and federal law enforcement agencies are able to submit copies of seized child pornography to the federal law enforcement agents assigned to NCMEC, accompanied by a written request that the images be reviewed for identified children. After a review of all of the pictures on the defendant’s computer, a child identification report is provided to the submitting agency listing every single picture containing an identified child. In order to protect the child’s privacy, this report contains detailed information about the law enforcement agency that identified the child.


Image Analysis

The most critical function of CVIP is the ongoing effort to rescue the unidentified children seen in sexually exploitive images. There are many children still suffering at the hands of their exploiters who need to be located. While reviewing evidence submitted by law enforcement, CVIP analysts closely examine the images and videos and document all investigative clues that could lead to the location of a child victim. Once a location has been determined, CVIP enlists the assistance of the appropriate law enforcement agency to identify the child victims. Many children have been rescued from ongoing exploitation as a result of the cooperative efforts between CVIP and law enforcement.

This case highlights the importance of image analysis and cooperative investigations involving federal and local law enforcement agencies. During the course of providing technical assistance to the ICE and U.S. Secret Service, CVIP analysts reviewed several child pornography images of six prepubescent girls. The CVIP analysts had never seen these pictures before, which heightened their concerns that these children might still be in an abusive situation. Many of the sexually explicit photographs showed the girls in various rooms of a private home that provided critical clues for a location.

CVIP analysts began an aggressive analysis of the images with the hope of identifying the six young girls. CVIP reviewed the images, one by one, and documented a significant number of investigative clues. The first clue that led CVIP analysts to the children’s location was an envelope seen in the background of one of the images. Image enhancement provided the analyst with the name of a storage facility. Internet searches for this company indicated six possible locations in the Minneapolis, Minnesota, area.

The second clue that indicated that the victims lived in the Minneapolis area was a particular picture in which a child’s uniform is seen draped over a chair. Partially visible on the uniform was the text MINNEA. CVIP analysts believed that this clue, along with the envelope, could help law enforcement find the victims. In addition to a possible location, CVIP analysts determined that many of the images were taken with an Olympus digital camera between March and October 2004.

NCMEC referred the case to ICE’s field office in Minneapolis. ICE agents coordinated the investigation with the Minnesota Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and the Burnsville Police Department. The investigators created a mini-taskforce and successfully identified all six children within a few days. During the search warrant of the abuser’s home, many of the items seen in the photographs were seized as evidence. The U.S. attorney’s office successfully convicted the producer of these images on 24 counts of manufacturing child pornography, one count of possession of child pornography, and one count of receipt of child pornography.


Newly Identified Victims

During the course of child sexual exploitation investigations, law enforcement investigators frequently encounter children who have been pornographically photographed or videotaped. It is an unfortunate reality that many of these pictures will be uploaded to the Internet for the enjoyment of others. It is often difficult, if not impossible, for law enforcement to determine whether photographs of locally identified victims have been traded with others. NCMEC can generate reports for law enforcement documenting where specific pictures have been seen. These reports have been incredibly helpful to law enforcement and prosecutors who were looking to ensure convictions on charges of distribution.

More than 900 children seen in these horrific images already have been identified, but there are many sexually abused children who still need to be rescued. It is critical that law enforcement agencies notify NCMEC when they’ve identified a child who was pornographically photographed, whether they believe the images were distributed or not.


Victim ID Lab
Victim Identification Laboratory

Every week, CVIP staff members view thousands of illegal images of children where the victim appears to be in the United States yet has not been identified. CVIP analysts work to identify the location of these children by looking for distinguishing clues in the background such as newspapers, calendars, and envelopes. Such unique identifiers may not be recognizable to CVIP staff members, but it is highly probable somebody may recognize them. Based on the assumption that more children can be located if more people are looking at the backgrounds, NCMEC created an aggressive new tool in the fight against child pornography called the Victim Identification Lab.

In summer 2006 the first-ever United States–based victim identification lab was launched at the Crimes Against Children Conference in Dallas, Texas. It was a cooperative effort involving NCMEC, the ICAC task forces, the FBI, ICE, and the USPIS. The purpose of the lab was to create a secure environment where law enforcement officers could review sanitized, nonpornographic images that contain potential clues in the background that may be regionally identifiable.

During a weeklong launch of the victim identification lab, 540 police officers visited the lab and generated more than 560 leads. As a result, jurisdictions have been identified for five children, and in one case the identity of a previously unknown child victim was determined. Participants included law enforcement officials and prosecutors from 48 states and 11 countries. Participants viewed images with the graphic material removed, both photographs and videos, showing background identifiers, audio clues, children’s faces, and suspects’ faces.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Assistant Attorney General Regina B. Schofield toured the lab and received a demonstration of its capabilities on opening day. The lab featured 30 individual workstations, donated by the ICAC task forces, with real-time message posting of comments and suggestions that could be viewed by everyone in the lab. All information submitted by lab users was compiled and analyzed by NCMEC before referral to the appropriate law enforcement agency for investigation. ■


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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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