Project Safe Childhood Nationwide:
Fifteen percent of teens ages 12-17 who own a cell phone say they have received sexually suggestive nude/semi-nude images of someone they know via text message. One in 25 children ages 10-17 received an online sexual solicitation where the solicitor tried to make offline contact. Four percent of teens ages 12-17 who own a cell phone say they have sent sexually suggestive nude/semi-nude images to others via text message. From 1984-2014, over 3.8 million people called the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to report information about child abduction and exploitation.
To address the growing concerns about child sexual exploitation in the digital age, the Department of Justice launched Project Safe Childhood in 2006. Project Safe Childhood expanded in 2011 to include sex trafficking of minors, crimes against children committed in Indian country, and failure to register as a sex offender.
The national initiative relies on partnerships with organizations including United States Attorneys’ Offices; federal investigative agencies; and state, local, tribal, and military law enforcement officials. Approximately 70 Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Forces operate around the country for federal, state, and local law enforcement officers to collaborate in investigating online child exploitation.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children helps to identify and rescue victims of all types of child exploitation. In 2012 and 2013 alone, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received 500,000 reports of child sexual exploitation through its CyberTipline and reviewed more than 20 million images and videos of suspected child pornography.
Across the country, Project Safe Childhood initiatives resulted in the prosecution of thousands of defendants and the identification of thousands of victims of child pornography. Many of those victims have chosen to share their stories to ensure that defendants are aware of the traumatic and continuing effect that these crimes have on their lives. Victims can choose to be notified when another person is prosecuted for possessing and trading their images. Additionally, victims can seek monetary restitution against convicted defendants for medical costs, therapy, lost wages, and other damages caused by the continued trade of their images on the underground market for child pornography.
Project Safe Childhood in the Western District of Michigan:
The United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Michigan prosecutes people who create, download, share, possess, and view child pornography. Federal sentences for these crimes are steep: up to 20 years for viewing and possessing child pornography, a mandatory minimum of 5 years and up to 20 years for downloading and sharing child pornography, and a mandatory minimum of 15 years and up to 30 years for producing child pornography. The penalties increase for each of those charges if the defendant has a prior sex offense conviction.
The United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Michigan also prosecutes those who seek to exploit children sexually by chatting online or arranging to meet children for sexual encounters. Federal sentences for those crimes are significant: 10 years to life for coercing or enticing a child for sex, 10 years to life for causing a child to travel out of state for sex, and up to 30 years for traveling to another state to have sex with a child. Defendants who traffic minors for prostitution face a mandatory minimum of 10 years and up to life in prison.
In 2013 and 2014, the United States Attorneys’ Office for the Western District of Michigan successfully prosecuted the following cases, among others under Project Safe Childhood:
- sex trafficking of three girls ages 14-16 in Grand Rapids;
- online enticement of a 12-year-old by a man in California;
- producing sexually explicit photos of a teenage boy (resulting in forfeiture of the defendant’s house);
- sexually abusing a 12-year-old girl on Indian territory;
- distribution and possession of over 44,000 files of child pornography by a formerly licensed counselor;
- streaming live video over the internet of children being sexually abused;
- downloading and possessing child pornography;
- receiving child pornography;
- cyber-stalking of students at Michigan State University and committing child pornography offenses; and
- viewing child pornography online.
Protecting Children from Online Predators:
Children of every age, family background, disposition, economic status, and sex are targeted by adults who prey on children. But of the one in seven youth who receive sexual solicitations online, approximately 70% are girls. Parents should monitor children’s online activity closely. Although children feel that their online life is private, they need to know it is anything but.
Predators meet children on social media, chat rooms, and internet-based video games, among other places. All of these activities present opportunities for predators to gain children’s trust and groom them for engaging in sexual conduct. Predators sometimes use a false identity, posing as other children or using a fake name to develop a friendship with a child. The predator may even establish social media accounts under that false identity to provide an additional sense of legitimacy to that identity. By the time the predator encourages the child to engage in sexual conduct or to send a sexually explicit image or video, the child may have developed a certain level of trust in the offender that makes the child less likely to report the activity and more likely to keep the activity a secret at the request of the offender.
Talk to children about online predators, limits for what to reveal online, cyberbullying, and other internet safety topics by using this online video workshop by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Additional short videos about cyberbullying, created by middle and high school students, are also a good starting point for discussing internet practices.
Protecting Children from Sex Trafficking:
As part of the Innocence Lost Initiative – a collaboration among the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the FBI, and the Department of Justice – 3,100 child victims of sex trafficking were recovered from 2003 to 2013. The youngest was nine years old. In a 2013 national sting on child sex trafficking, Detroit ranked second-highest out of 76 cities in the number of child victims recovered. And sex trafficking happens in West Michigan.
Families, teachers, hotel workers, convenience store employees, and students are in the best position to identify potential child sex trafficking activity. While children of every type of background can be lured into prostitution, some warning signs of child sex trafficking include:
- lack of organized afterschool and summer activities and supervision;
- running away (not necessarily overnight);
- recent friendship/attention between a teenager and an older adult who may drive the teen places or provide a place to stay overnight;
- tension and fighting at home;
- new clothing, nails, and hair styles generally outside the financial reach of a teen;
- new cell phone not purchased by parent/guardian;
- checking in at a hotel with no luggage or sneaking into a hotel through a side door;
- drug/alcohol dependency; and
- low self-esteem.
Report suspected sex trafficking immediately.
How to Report Child Exploitation:
If you suspect illegal activity involving child exploitation, contact law enforcement immediately. If a child is in imminent danger, call 911. Other resources for reporting these crimes include:
- West Michigan Based Child Exploitation Task Force (WEBCHEX) at 616-456-5489;
- Homeland Security Investigations, Grand Rapids, at 616-235-3936 (x. 2215); and
- CyberTipline (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children).
To report a child missing and gain immediate assistance in launching a campaign to locate the child, or if you think you have seen a missing child, call:
- 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678).