Justice News

Acting Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio Delivers Remarks at the National Law Enforcement Training on Child Exploitation
Washington, DC
United States
Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, BJay.  It’s a privilege to join you in Atlanta and to have this opportunity to recognize you and your staff for the important work you’re doing in the Northern District of Georgia.  If you don’t mind my bragging on your accomplishments for just a minute, I’d like to point out just a few of your recent cases:

The District obtained a $30 million False Claims Act settlement from a skilled-nursing facility operator  that was cheating  Medicare with false claims for rehabilitation therapy services. 

The District secured a conviction and prison sentence for a drug trafficker who possessed  counterfeit pills disguised to look like oxycodone, but were laced with deadly fentanyl and synthetic opioids.

And, in a prosecution this audience will appreciate, your team secured weighty prison sentences for two defendants who trafficked a 13-year-old girl for commercial sex.  

These are just a few examples that show how your Office is directly advancing, here in the Atlanta region, the Attorney General’s enforcement priorities: rooting out healthcare fraud, fighting the opioid crisis, and prosecuting human traffickers.

It is also an honor to join my colleague John Cronan. John is on the front lines of the most important and complex criminal cases in the nation, and he has a particular passion for combatting internet crimes against children. He’s a tremendous leader and public servant and we are fortunate to have him at DOJ.

Let me also say what a pleasure it is to join Alan Hanson and Caren Harp.  I want to thank them and their teams from the Office of Justice Programs for organizing this important training.  OJP does so much to support law enforcement across this country, and Alan and Caren, and their teams, are tireless in their efforts. 

My thanks, as well, to our federal partners at the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.  And I want to recognize our state partners from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and Director Keenan in particular. 

Most importantly, thanks to each and every one of you, the outstanding professionals who enforce our laws, safeguard our communities, and protect our kids.  We are grateful for your service and you commitment.

One of the privileges of serving at Main Justice is the opportunity to meet extraordinary men and women who make fighting crime and keeping our communities safe their life’s work.  Among this distinguished group of crime-fighters is an elite class of professionals who take on the most challenging and emotionally wrenching cases in all of policing.  These are the investigators who patrol the dark corners of cyberspace to uncover the appalling crimes against the most vulnerable members of our society.

Child exploitation, any form of it, is a moral abomination, and within this category of evil is a particular kind of depravity that shocks the conscience.  It comes packaged in online images of children being subjected to the most vile and violent treatment.  These images—images that, unfortunately, each of you has to investigate on a regular basis—contain some of the most unspeakable violations one individual can perpetrate on another.  This is some of the most difficult work in law enforcement, and you are the ones doing it.  Thank you.

A few weeks ago, during our National Missing Children’s Day ceremony, I had the distinct honor of presenting awards to several exceptional investigators for their diligent efforts to rescue children from sexual exploitation.  Among them were a team of local and federal investigators who resolved a sexual abuse case that went all the way back to the 1970s.  Another was a detective who found scores of missing children in a single year.  And another awardee was an investigator who helped shut down a child pornography operation that had ensnared more than 40 victims.

It won’t surprise any of you to hear that the perpetrators of these crimes were not the trench coat-wearing stereotypes one might conjure up when hearing the word pedophile.  One was a trusted, long-standing member of the community who preyed upon at least two generations of young boys.  Another was a high school coach who molested more than two dozen youth in classrooms and in his home.

These predators held positions of trust in the community.  For decades, they were able to fool parents, neighbors, teachers, and other students.  Feeling threatened and ashamed, their victims remained silent, bearing the full weight of this trauma on their small shoulders.

But eventually dedicated, unwavering police work broke through the wall of deceit, shame, and silence.  Resourceful investigators spent months, years even, tracking the suspects, identifying the victims, and examining computers and other evidence until they had what they needed to close the cases and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Their efforts were heroic.  And the remarkable thing is that they are among thousands of dedicated professionals going about this critical work every day in communities across the nation.  Police detectives, tribal law enforcement officials, federal agents, and forensic analysts scour the Internet, follow even the smallest lead, and work long, grueling hours to piece together a strong case.

Many in this field are part of the 61 Internet Crimes Against Children task forces supported by our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.  More than 4,500 federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies nationwide are working under the ICAC umbrella to combat technology-facilitated child exploitation, and we are pleased that their collaboration has yielded and continues to yield impressive results.

In fact, earlier today, the Attorney General announced that ICAC task forces across the country recently arrested more than 2,300 suspected child predators and pornographers nationwide as part of the annual three-month effort known as Operation Broken Heart.  Task forces investigated more than 25,000 complaints of technology-facilitated crimes against children through this operation, homing in on perpetrators, taking them out of criminal circulation, and bringing relief to victims.

Almost 200 of those arrested are suspected to have had physical contact with children.  Nearly 400 children were previously unknown to law enforcement, meaning that, but for this effort, scores of innocent victims would remain to suffer in silence.  These numbers are staggering, but Broken Heart sends a powerful message to perpetrators across the country:  law enforcement will find you, bring you to justice, and protect our children.

These results demonstrate the tremendous potential of these task forces to solve these complex cases and bring predators to justice, on a large scale.  This potential has been realized time and time again.  Since the program began twenty years ago, ICAC task forces have reviewed hundreds of thousands of child exploitation complaints and arrested more than 83,000 individuals – more than 10,300 in the last year alone. 

Task force participants have done remarkable work, and they are making cyberspace—and our public spaces—safer for our children.

These days, we hear a lot of criticism about policing in this country. Often, a few bad apples are made out to represent a large trend, and false narratives about policing and the state of crime and punishment in our country are sold to the public by those who should know better.  So all of you in the law enforcement community don’t always get the credit you deserve.  But your work—your heroic efforts—should be what the public hears about more often. The unspeakable crimes you prevent, the justice you deliver, the closure you bring to victims and their families—these things are the story of daily policing in this country, and your work holds a special place of distinction. 

That is why the Justice Department is so proud to support your excellent work and so pleased that we are cooperating in many ways to protect our nation’s kids.

Our Project Safe Childhood initiative, another element of our response to child sexual exploitation, continues to bring the talent and expertise of the Department’s litigators to the task of rooting out online exploitation. Working with local law enforcement, the Department recently secured a guilty plea from a 26-year-old man who used social media to groom a 12-year-old girl and then lured her into performing sexual acts.  The Department also succeeded in putting two Maryland men behind bars for the next quarter century for the sex trafficking of three underage girls.

I wish that I could report that the steady march of human progress means the need for your work has peaked and is now on the decline.  Sadly, as we know all too well, the opposite is true.  The threats faced by our children seem graver and more pervasive than ever, with cyberspace, social media, and its underbelly seemingly exacerbating every problem and creeping into every facet of their lives.

When it comes to protecting children, there is, regrettably, always a new challenge just around the corner.  In recent years, one particular menace has been devastating American communities, with an outsized, collateral impact on our kids.  Drug abuse, and in particular opioid abuse, is tearing apart families, destroying communities, and putting law enforcement officers and first responders at grave risk.

Opioid abuse has become one of country’s most pressing public health and safety crises.  Indeed, we’re in the midst of one of the worst drug epidemics in our country’s history.  An estimated 64,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses in 2016, about two-thirds of them as a result of opioids.  A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that one in five deaths among adults age 25 to 34 is opioid-related.  And about half of opioid overdose deaths occur in people between the ages of 22 and 44.  In other words, opioid abuse is significant among the cohort most likely to be parents of minor children.  

Opioid addiction thwarts even the most basic parental instincts, as the unquenchable thirst for the drug displaces all other desires and responsibilities.  Children are left to fend for themselves—and, worse still, to care for their parents or to watch in horror as their parents’ lives slip away to a ruthless master.  

Imagine coming home from school one day to find your mother or father unconscious from an overdose, making the tearful 911 call, waiting in terror and helplessness for aid to arrive, watching as your parent is whisked away in an ambulance, and being left behind in the care of police and social services.  Sometimes, these parents never return.  

Children are particularly vulnerable to the ravages of drug abuse.  Studies suggest that anywhere from a third to two-thirds of child maltreatment cases involve caregiver substance abuse. And the children of addicts are being removed from parental custody at alarming rates; with the skyrocketing deaths comes skyrocketing and permanent additions to the foster-care system.   According to a recent story in The New York Times, the number of children in foster care since 2010 has doubled in Montana, and has increased by eighty percent in Georgia and forty-five percent in West Virginia.

It is too early to tell how this epidemic will affect your work investigating child exploitation, but there is every reason to believe the impact will be profound.  We know, for instance, that some predators will actually generate a dependency on drugs as a means of controlling young people and trapping them in commercial sex work.  And we also know that gangs have managed to coerce female victims into serving as both drug couriers and prostitutes.

The line between drug abuse and child maltreatment is short, direct, and well documented.  It has always been the case that in homes where there are drugs, children suffer.  But with opioids, the problem seems particularly pervasive and menacing—and like an aggressive malignancy it is metastasizing across the nation.  We  need to be prepared for the predators who will take advantage of these vulnerable, abandoned children—the opioid orphans.

For our part, the Department of Justice recently launched several programs designed to help children and teens affected by opioids.  Our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and our Office for Victims of Crime are making $47 million available this year to serve child victims and provide intervention for youth who are at risk of coming into contact with the justice system due to their exposure to opioids.  Our solicitations hit the streets a few weeks ago, and we’re eager to see how communities propose to tackle this critical issue.

One thing we do know is that the ranks of law enforcement are filled with people, like all of you, who care about children and who will do whatever it takes to keep them out of harm’s way.  The investigators in this room have shown that child exploitation, no matter what form it takes, no matter how devious the methods of predators, will not go unchallenged.

We are fortunate that men and women like each of you are working hard to solve these cases and bring perpetrators to justice.  Our children, and indeed our nation, are safer because of the valiant work you do.

Our Attorney General and the entire Department of Justice are proud to stand beside law enforcement and to support you.  We will continue to put our faith in your professionalism, and we pledge to keep giving you the resources we have available to fight the scourge of child sexual exploitation.

Thank you for your time, and best wishes for a productive week of training and many more successes in protecting our nation’s youth.

Updated June 12, 2018