Project targets ‘epidemic’
BOISE – Children in Idaho and elsewhere in the nation are being victimized by sexual predators who track them down on the Internet, a consortium of federal, state and local law enforcement officials warned Wednesday as they launched Project Safe Childhood.
The push, headed by the U.S. Department of Justice, is aimed at educating parents and teens about Internet dangers and increasing law enforcement cooperation at all levels in finding and prosecuting Internet predators and child pornographers.
“It is not an exaggeration to say that we are in the midst of an epidemic of sexual exploitation of our children, brought on largely by the Internet and new technology,” U.S. Attorney Tom Moss said at a Boise news conference announcing the effort. At any time, he said, there are an estimated 50,000 predators “trolling for child victims on the Internet.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Peters said there are 20 cases currently being investigated or prosecuted in Idaho. They include that of a Boise man who had served prison time for child molestation and was caught producing and sharing child pornography on the Internet and operating a child sex Internet file-sharing site. That offender is up for sentencing next week and faces life in prison.
Peters said child pornography is not innocent photos of children, but “crime scene photos of children being raped. … These are gruesome photos that are being traded over the Internet.”
Moss said a high percentage of those convicted on child porn charges also admit to having sexual contact with children.
Derek Dofelmire, a detective with the Shoshone County Sheriff’s Office, joined a large group of law enforcement officials at the kickoff news conference. Dofelmire said he’s gone through special training on Internet crimes.
“Our goal is to start proactive cases to put a stop to the child solicitations and the travelers, people who will travel to meet young children for sex,” he said.
Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, who has been presenting his ProtecTeens program to teach parents and teens about Internet risks around the state for the past two years, said he was giving his presentation at a North Idaho middle school several months ago when a young girl sought out a detective who was in attendance. She revealed that she’d been in Internet contact with a man from Texas “who was on his way to Idaho to meet her.”
Law enforcement intervened, and the man was caught, Wasden said.
The most important thing parents can do to protect their teens from Internet predators is to be aware of their children’s Internet activities, including what sites they visit and what names they use, the attorney general said. Youngsters sometimes select sexually suggestive screen names without even realizing what the words mean, he said.
Children shouldn’t be left alone to use the Internet in their rooms – they should be out where parents can walk by and keep an eye on them, Wasden said. His ProtecTeens program includes a contract for parents and teens to sign regarding rules on Internet use, and a manual for parents on understanding teen Internet lingo.
Both Project Safe Childhood and ProtecTeens focus on alerting teens against posting personal information on the Internet. New TV and radio ads, produced in partnership by the Justice Department and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, press the message “Think before you post.”
In one, a high-schooler named Sarah is startled when boys she doesn’t know recognize her and call her by name – and then horrified as a coach comments about her new tattoo, a stranger asks what color underwear she’s wearing today and unsavory characters leer at her and ask when she’ll post something new.
Wasden said, “Social networking sites such as MySpace are of particular concern because kids can, and do, post personally identifying information that a predator can use to locate a child, not only in the virtual world, but in the real world as well.”