Child porn arrests soar as state police expand task force

SCITUATE, R.I. (WPRI) — The number of suspects arrested on child pornography-related charges almost doubled last year, with state police crediting an expanded and aggressive task force, Target 12 has learned.

The Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force is part of the state police computer crimes unit, supervised by Lt. Chris Schram. He said the suspects are perpetuating crimes that go far beyond sharing illegal pictures and videos.

“On the other end of that camera are young children,” Schram said. “Young people who are being victimized, who are being actively molested. These aren’t victimless photos.”

The Internet Watch Foundation, an organization of law enforcement, government and information technology professionals, releases an annual report on child sexual assault. The 2014 version indicates more than 40 percent of the world’s child porn images show sexual activity between children and adults, and 80 percent of the victims in the videos and pictures examined, appeared to be under 10 years old. Other research reveals a large majority of child pornography is created in the United States.

Victimized over and over again

Mary Byrne has a calming demeanor that doesn’t reveal what she survived as a child, but she is more than willing to share her horrors as a volunteer with Day One’s victim advocate program.

She was sexually assaulted at a very young age, hiding it until she reached her 30s. She points out the assault was committed long before the Internet fed the pornography business and helped it grow into a multibillion dollar industry. Byrne shudders to think about how much worse an already devastating crime would be if pictures or videos of it were shared with people around the world.

“I can’t even imagine,” she said, gently shaking her head. “If I knew that there were pictures of me out there, even as I aged, even if they were from my childhood, it would be much more difficult. It’s bad enough when you know and the perpetrator knows. To have all these pictures out there, I think it would be much worse.”

 On the other end of that camera are young children – Lt. Chris Schram – Rhode Island State Police

Local departments and state police join forces and get results

The state police computer crimes unit has been around for several years, now operating out of a nondescript office at RISP headquarters in Scituate. Inside, officers are trying to crack cases often shrouded by ever-evolving types of computer encryption, but nothing inside the brain center looks especially high-tech; just detectives doing the detailed ground work for what they hope will lead to arrests and convictions.

According to Schram, the CCU has grown year by year, but in 2014, Colonel Steven O’Donnell made it a priority to strengthen ICAC, which is made up of state, federal and local officers, as well as prosecutors, educators and technology experts. A full-time detective was added and state police reached out to police departments across the state, who send officers to ICAC to help track down the suspects.

“That has allowed more work to be done,” Schram said. “A big part of that is the local affiliated agencies helping us add more people to the task force, or granting them to us for more days.”

The results: In 2014, 74 suspects were arrested for possession or distribution of child pornography, an 80 percent increase from the 41 arrests made the year before. Schram said the trend appears to be continuing this year, but he emphasized there is no way to gauge what impact that is having on Rhode Island’s underground community of child pornography traders.

Schram acknowledges strategy and technology play a role in what they do, but he will not go into detail, not wanting to tip off the suspects. He said task force officers are trained on a regular basis to keep up with the technology used by their targets who he said share methods to hide what they do.

“Sometimes it’s proactive, undercover type of investigations that we’re involved with and we take those as far as we can to determine what’s really taking place and who’s involved,” Schram said. “We do get tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, regarding activity over the Internet, perceived solicitation or child pornography. And we follow up on those leads.”

Connecting the images with past and future crimes

Amy Battersby is the clinical director for Day One, which advocates for sexual assault victims as their cases move through the Rhode Island justice system. She said it would be difficult to prove statistically that people who view child porn eventually graduate to sexual assault, but she added you can often see a potential link when the criminal records of sexual assault suspects are examined.

“People who have been arrested on first-degree or second-degree child molestation are likely to have looked at child pornography,” Battersby said. “We can’t say definitively that one leads to the other, but when we look back at a case, we often find suspects had watched child pornography.’

Schram said state police acknowledge a probable link as well.

“Absolutely,” he said. “We’ve found cases that we’ve investigated that we’ve made the direct connection to victims, and that suspects are actively trying to engage in some type of molestation with these young kids.”

Battersby and Schram emphasize the connection between child pornography and sexual assault makes weeding out the porn suspects even more vital. While they’re encouraged by the increase in arrests, they understand the seemingly nonstop growth of the pornography industry means the battle will continue.

“We’re not done and it’s not enough,” Schram said. “I would say we win the war every day, by every single investigation, every single arrest. I don’t look at it as a total victory ever. It’s just something that you have to continue to chip away at and work on.”

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau

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