Among all the federal crimes that my office prosecutes, one type stands out as the most horrific because of the violence involved and the vulnerability of the victims: child exploitation. This crime lurks in hidden places on the Internet via the creation and dissemination of child pornography and the solicitation of minors for sexual activity, but it also can be found in many neighborhoods across the United States in the form of child trafficking and prostitution. Every year, thousands of children face unspeakable acts, often committed by those closest to them. Some go on to bravely confront those abusers, but many suffer silently, waiting for rescue. The mental and physical scars can last a life-time. Particularly for the child victims whose sexual assaults are memorialized in still or video images, they will experience continued trauma caused by the thousands of strangers who delight in the images of their sexual abuse. As one victim said, “[e]very day of my life I live in constant fear that someone will see my pictures and recognize me and that I will be humiliated all over again.”
Contrary to popular belief, child pornography does not only depict young adults. These images include children as young as 1 and 2 years old being sexually brutalized. NCMEC estimates that 10% of those depicted in commonly traded images are infants and toddlers, and another 67% are prepubescent children. Sadly, the images are getting more violent and graphic each year. To be clear, these images and videos are not simply child pornography. They are, in the words of one commentator, “crime scene photos” – depictions of children being raped, sexually abused, and exploited. In my district, we have found that 1 out of every 6 arrests relating to child pornography results in locating child victims of sexual abuse.
The U.S. Department of Justice is committed to the safety and well-being of our nation’s children and has made combating the sexual exploitation of minors a top priority. In 2006, the Department initiated Project Safe Childhood, a unified and comprehensive strategy to combat online child exploitation through law enforcement, community action, and public awareness. Since Project Safe Childhood began, the number of defendants sent to federal prison for online child exploitation has increased 80%, to more than 2,200 defendants last year. This year, the Department has expanded Project Safe Childhood to include all federal child exploitation offenses, including the trafficking of minors, the failure of child predators to register as sex offenders, traveling internationally to sexually exploit children, and all child exploitation on federal lands.
Despite notable successes, the scope of the problem cannot be overstated. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), approximately one in seven youth online (10 to 17-years-old) received a sexual solicitation or approach over the Internet. Thirty-four percent (34%) experienced unwanted exposure to sexual material – pictures of nudity or sexual activity. Studies estimate as many as 325,000 children in the United States, Canada, and Mexico are at risk each year for becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation, including 30% of shelter youth and 70% of street youth in the United States. Many Americans go overseas to solicit children for sex. Some organizations estimate that U.S. citizens account for 25% of child sex tourists worldwide, and as high as 80% in Latin America. Younger children, many below the age of 10, have been increasingly drawn into serving tourists.
You can help law enforcement combat these terrible crimes. May 25th marks National Missing Children’s Day, first commemorated in 1983 and honored each year since then. This day serves as a reminder to the nation to renew efforts to reunite missing children with their families, remember those who are still missing and make child protection a national priority. This year, I encourage you to mark National Missing Children’s Day by spending 25 minutes that day talking with the children you love about ways to stay safer online and in your neighborhoods. For information, including tips on talking to kids about internet safety and games for kids that teach about staying safer online, visit www.netsmartz.org. You can also plan a “Take 25” event at a local school or community center to help educate the community about the importance of internet safety. Visit www.take25.org to register your event or to learn about events in your area.
Child exploitation crimes are horrific and far too common. However, working together, we can make a difference. Let’s all strive to make a safer world for our children to learn, grow and thrive.