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Police hunt down predators on Internet

FOREST, Va. (AP) — He’s holding her tight, his left arm outstretched to snap the photo. He’s smiling. The little girl is not.
It’s one of the few photos of the blue-eyed 3-year-old investigators can show those without a badge. Dozens more are criminal, the child naked and posed erotically, sometimes clenching her sippy cup.
The images led investigators with the Southern Virginia Internet Crimes Against Children task force to his home in April. He is now behind bars, facing a growing list of charges.
Nationwide, investigators are stalking Internet predators — from those who lure children they meet online into a sexual relationship, to those who assault toddlers and post images of their crimes.
Authorities are making strides, but investigators and organizations that work with them say the task forces are underfunded and vastly outnumbered: They’ve identified more than half a million U.S. computers that have traded child porn.
Investigators say they know where the bad guys are, and they usually know who they are. They just don’t have the resources to get them all.
They’re getting some help, though. A handful of states have pitched in funding, including Virginia, where the legislature approved $1.5 million for the state’s two Internet child-crime task forces, and the Southern Virginia team will use its $750,000 to double its staff of three investigators.
Congress is considering more than tripling the annual budget for such task forces to $60 million next year and increasing it to $100 million by 2014.
———
The U.S. Department of Justice created the task force program in 1998 to support state and local law enforcement, with the Southern Virginia task force one of the original 10 to receive funding. By last October, there was at least one in each state.
In fiscal 2007, task force investigations led to more than 2,400 arrests, according to the Department of Justice. The teams also trained thousands of police officers and prosecutors in the U.S. and 17 countries.
While some states provide additional funding, many task forces rely solely on about $250,000 in annual federal grants. They say it’s just not enough.
‘‘We are overwhelmed. We are underfunded. And we are drowning in a tidal wave of tragedy,’’ Flint Waters, head of Wyoming’s Internet child-sex task force, testified to Congress in October.
Waters developed a computer program that traces child pornography traded on file-sharing Web sites. Since 2005, investigators have tracked more than 600,000 computers, but Waters estimates that less than 1 percent of leads are investigated.
Many, he acknowledges, likely would lead nowhere. Yet thousands, he says, could lead to an abused child.
‘‘When you go home knowing that leaving your desk, leaving your workload, you’re leaving kids out there that are being hurt, it’s hard to carry that,’’ Waters said, ‘‘and it shouldn’t be my burden. That needs to fall to the people that can get us more help.’’
———
The photos of the little girl came to Sgt. Rodney Thompson of the Southern Virginia task force from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline — one of the more than 500,000 tips that have poured in since its creation in 1998.
Analysts examine the tips, work with Internet service providers to locate a suspect and farm out about 2,000 each week to investigators.
Many are teens who bare too much in a photo and it winds up in the regions of the Internet where only pedophiles wander. But the girl in the photo was different. Thompson’s team had the opportunity to spare her a lifetime of abuse.

The pictures told them what to look for: the turquoise walls, the green comforter, the sippy cup. They had a name, and they had an address.
‘‘We knew how horrific child pornography was because we deal with it every day. We see the videos every day. We hear the girls and boys screaming in the videos every day,’’ Thompson said. ‘‘But you never do realize it until you walk into a crime scene and see that this is actually where the victimization took place.’’
Evidence found at the home also led to a 16-year-old victim. She told investigators the two had met online.
———
Research by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire indicates that about one in five of those arrested for possession of child porn has images of children under 3.
‘‘It’s such a difficult problem to educate the public about,’’ said Michelle Collins of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. ‘‘It’s inconceivable to the average person that these types of crimes occur, and it’s a crime you can’t show the public.’’

While investigators say more money is needed, it’s not the magic bullet. Even if they could make more arrests, they’d face forensic bottlenecks, overcrowded jails and overworked prosecutors.
‘‘Right now, the focus is on trying to do the most with the worst offenders,’’ Waters said. ‘‘We’re not going to get everybody.’’
That doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of hope, images of victory.
There is another photo of the girl in Thompson’s office. In this one, she’s sitting on the officer’s lap, hugging a stuffed Elmo.
This time, she’s smiling.
The caption: ‘‘Rescued April 7, 2008.’’

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Police hunt down predators on Internet

FOREST, Va. (AP) — He’s holding her tight, his left arm outstretched to snap the photo. He’s smiling. The little girl is not.
It’s one of the few photos of the blue-eyed 3-year-old investigators can show those without a badge. Dozens more are criminal, the child naked and posed erotically, sometimes clenching her sippy cup.
The images led investigators with the Southern Virginia Internet Crimes Against Children task force to his home in April. He is now behind bars, facing a growing list of charges.
Nationwide, investigators are stalking Internet predators — from those who lure children they meet online into a sexual relationship, to those who assault toddlers and post images of their crimes.
Authorities are making strides, but investigators and organizations that work with them say the task forces are underfunded and vastly outnumbered: They’ve identified more than half a million U.S. computers that have traded child porn.
Investigators say they know where the bad guys are, and they usually know who they are. They just don’t have the resources to get them all.
They’re getting some help, though. A handful of states have pitched in funding, including Virginia, where the legislature approved $1.5 million for the state’s two Internet child-crime task forces, and the Southern Virginia team will use its $750,000 to double its staff of three investigators.
Congress is considering more than tripling the annual budget for such task forces to $60 million next year and increasing it to $100 million by 2014.
———
The U.S. Department of Justice created the task force program in 1998 to support state and local law enforcement, with the Southern Virginia task force one of the original 10 to receive funding. By last October, there was at least one in each state.
In fiscal 2007, task force investigations led to more than 2,400 arrests, according to the Department of Justice. The teams also trained thousands of police officers and prosecutors in the U.S. and 17 countries.
While some states provide additional funding, many task forces rely solely on about $250,000 in annual federal grants. They say it’s just not enough.
‘‘We are overwhelmed. We are underfunded. And we are drowning in a tidal wave of tragedy,’’ Flint Waters, head of Wyoming’s Internet child-sex task force, testified to Congress in October.
Waters developed a computer program that traces child pornography traded on file-sharing Web sites. Since 2005, investigators have tracked more than 600,000 computers, but Waters estimates that less than 1 percent of leads are investigated.
Many, he acknowledges, likely would lead nowhere. Yet thousands, he says, could lead to an abused child.
‘‘When you go home knowing that leaving your desk, leaving your workload, you’re leaving kids out there that are being hurt, it’s hard to carry that,’’ Waters said, ‘‘and it shouldn’t be my burden. That needs to fall to the people that can get us more help.’’
———
The photos of the little girl came to Sgt. Rodney Thompson of the Southern Virginia task force from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline — one of the more than 500,000 tips that have poured in since its creation in 1998.
Analysts examine the tips, work with Internet service providers to locate a suspect and farm out about 2,000 each week to investigators.
Many are teens who bare too much in a photo and it winds up in the regions of the Internet where only pedophiles wander. But the girl in the photo was different. Thompson’s team had the opportunity to spare her a lifetime of abuse.

The pictures told them what to look for: the turquoise walls, the green comforter, the sippy cup. They had a name, and they had an address.
‘‘We knew how horrific child pornography was because we deal with it every day. We see the videos every day. We hear the girls and boys screaming in the videos every day,’’ Thompson said. ‘‘But you never do realize it until you walk into a crime scene and see that this is actually where the victimization took place.’’
Evidence found at the home also led to a 16-year-old victim. She told investigators the two had met online.
———
Research by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire indicates that about one in five of those arrested for possession of child porn has images of children under 3.
‘‘It’s such a difficult problem to educate the public about,’’ said Michelle Collins of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. ‘‘It’s inconceivable to the average person that these types of crimes occur, and it’s a crime you can’t show the public.’’

While investigators say more money is needed, it’s not the magic bullet. Even if they could make more arrests, they’d face forensic bottlenecks, overcrowded jails and overworked prosecutors.
‘‘Right now, the focus is on trying to do the most with the worst offenders,’’ Waters said. ‘‘We’re not going to get everybody.’’
That doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of hope, images of victory.
There is another photo of the girl in Thompson’s office. In this one, she’s sitting on the officer’s lap, hugging a stuffed Elmo.
This time, she’s smiling.
The caption: ‘‘Rescued April 7, 2008.’’

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