With evolving technology, the victims of sexual abuse are getting younger, the crimes are getting more violent and the distribution of such acts is becoming more widespread. Therefore, the national child advocacy program, Protect, continues to address the need to make “the protection of children a top political and policy priority at the national, state and local levels.”

Camille Cooper, director of Legislative Affairs for Protect, engaged in a discussion on current conditions and recent responses to the epidemic on April 30 at OpenGrounds. The Sexual and Domestic Violence Services (SDVS) program at the U.Va. Women’s Center sponsored this event.

The issue has directly impacted the University with “a noted administrator, employees, students, hav[ing] been arrested for downloading images of sexual violence against the youngest, most vulnerable people,” according to Claire Kaplan, director of SDVS.

Kaplan specifically invited Cooper to speak on the issue because “her work is on the cutting edge of intervention in the netherworld of child pornography.”

“If most child porn today is homemade, then what does that mean for the child victims?” Kaplan said. “We use the Internet every day and the benefits are enormous, but there is a dark side that we ignore to our peril […]There is a disconnect between viewing or downloading a 2-dimensional image and how that act harms the child in that picture.  That has to end.”

In her presentation, Cooper first created context with startling statistics from the Department of Justice:  Of the more than 700,000 registered sex offenders in the U.S., 90 percent of those crimes are adult offenders against minors. She emphasized the limited scope of these statistics, as many cases go unreported because children often need to speak out against someone they know. According to the same statistics, the majority of offenders are a family member, neighbor or some other trusted individual in the child’s life.

Furthermore, Cooper noted how difficult it is to convict a well-known and respected individual like in the example of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky.

The presentation continued with an explanation of typical legal processes that the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task forces, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the FBI use in identifying distribution and production of child pornography. According to Cooper, law enforcement agencies must “triage” the enormous list of traffickers by identifying who not only downloads child pornography but also those who simultaneously download “how to manuals” and other child abuse literature. This correlation usually indicates hands-on offenses.

Ultimately, Cooper described how her organization “[…] realized that there is this huge need for manpower on these cases” because the law enforcement’s forensic backlog could be “at any given time, almost 1,000 computers.” There is a chance that those charged with child abuse are potentially offending while awaiting trial.

Therefore, Protect, in collaboration with ICE and other entities, has recently launched a new program that trains injured veterans in digital computer forensics to help with victim identification and child rescue. The first training sessions of the Human Exploitation Rescue Operative (HERO) Child-Rescue Corps occurred in the fall and summer of 2013. Last month, the first 15 successfully completed training and were hired by ICE. According to Cooper, the next 21 screened candidates will undergo training starting in August.

In a promotional video, one veteran says he decided to enroll in this program because he “spent time overseas going after terrorists […] but there’s a lot of even worse people right here in our own backyards doing unspeakable things to children.”

One take-away from the event, according to Kaplan, is that “with freedom (i.e. unfettered access to the Internet, as an example), comes enormous responsibility.”

“Here’s another example of how bystander intervention might prevent a small percentage of people from downloading child pornography […] Most child porn users aren’t creepy old men in trench coats.  They are our family members, friends, coworkers. We need to talk about this issue and make it clear that however one feels about adult porn, child porn is a different matter.  There is no consent here.  […] Their torture is making someone else a big profit.  Their spirits are crushed, and even if they are rescued and receive treatment, they can never escape that world because the images are in cyberspace, shared over and over, in perpetuity.”

 By Agnes Filipowski