How #Child-Porn #Investigators Are #Shifting Focus to #Rescuing #Victims

Federal officials who once mainly prosecuted consumers of illegal pornography now hunt for clues in photos and videos to find the victims—and their abusers

A federal analyst studied the child pornography videos for clues. Finding none, he turned to mundane photographs the suspected abuser also had uploaded online of the young victim playing in a park and by some bushes.

Using a Smithsonian Institution analysis of the shrubs, the sleuth from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, narrowed his search to one U.S. region. Next, he zeroed in on the park’s playground equipment, making dozens of calls to playground makers and organizations that certify them, finally finding a company that pinpointed the park. A neighborhood search quickly turned up the girl and her abuser, who was arrested.

That recent investigation, described by law-enforcement officials familiar with the case, is part of an ICE victim identification program in northern Virginia that is helping transform child pornography investigations.

In poring over child pornography images, ICE investigators find leads in a unique tree, the logo on a sweatshirt, the name on a pill bottle, the rattling of trains, chirping of birds—or the metadata buried in the photos and videos, including information that reveals time and place. Often, the best clues are found in mundane photographs, like those of the girl in the park, that are uploaded by abusers to prove they have access to the children. ​

Officials used to focus on prosecuting the consumers of child pornography. That is no longer enough, law-enforcement officials and advocates say. The focus is increasingly turning to identifying and rescuing the victims, an approach that is also netting a rising number of offenders.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says law-enforcement agencies have identified at least 9,400 juvenile victims of online sexual exploitation since 2013. In the preceding decade, there were about 5,000 such identifications, which officials call “rescues” because the children are often removed from abusive environments.

“Law enforcement has really made a huge effort in this area,” said Lindsey Olson of the nonprofit National Center.

The internet and the “dark web”—a portion of the internet that is only accessible with special software and is often used by criminals—are awash in child pornography, with abusers and viewers swapping videos and photographs as if they were baseball cards, law-enforcement officials say. Last year, the National Center reviewed more than 34 million images and videos depicting the sexual exploitation of children 17 and under. Its cyber tip line recorded more than 8 million abuse-related reports.

Agents at ICE, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Postal Inspection Service, as well as state and local police, are all tasked with investigating child pornography. ICE has long had jurisdiction in such investigations, dating back to the decades-long work of U.S. customs agents who targeted the mailing and smuggling of such images and videos into the U.S. from overseas.

In the past, those investigations generally involved arresting people who possessed a stash of child pornography, often after receiving a tip. Little effort was generally directed toward identifying the abusers or victims.

That began to change thanks in part to a push by ICE agent James Cole. In 2006, Mr. Cole had spent months searching for a girl and her suspected abuser in a widely distributed child pornography video.

Canadian police officials leading the effort suspected the abuse had occurred in a motel room in Oregon due to a unique fast-food cup they had analyzed in one of the videos. The victim was clearly identifiable but the abuser was never on screen.

Gathering Intel
Analysts seek clues into the whereabouts of child victims of sexual predators by examining photos and videos, which abusers use to prove their access to victims.

Mr. Cole examined the room’s furniture and a sweatshirt caught on screen, visited scores of motels and flipped through hundreds of school yearbooks in search of the girl’s face.

Unbeknown to Mr. Cole and Canadian police, the girl had one year earlier reported to local police that her father had been sexually abusing her. Before the father could be arrested, he fled the country. The girl, then 15, appeared on the television show America’s Most Wanted to help locate the fugitive. Canadian police recognized her and called Mr. Cole.

Mr. Cole said he met the teenager and other family members, and apologized for not having found her sooner. He explained how much work he and his colleagues had done to find her. The girl and her family deeply appreciated the effort, he said, and that is when a “lightbulb went off.”

“We had been approaching this all wrong,” said Mr. Cole, a former policeman and U.S. Army intelligence officer. “I saw how impactful this all was, how much they appreciated how hard we tried to find her. I realized we need to be looking at these cases in a victim-centered way. I also thought it would not only help us find the victims, but also the abuser.”

He decided to test his theory by digging into three of his old cases that had resulted in convictions of men with pornography on their computers. As Mr. Cole combed the suspects’ devices more carefully, he discovered two new victims. The men he had arrested, it turned out, had also been recording the sexual exploitation of their own children. The intervention led to counseling for the children and protection from their fathers once they were released from prison, Mr. Cole said.

As the years wore on, Mr. Cole realized that identifying the victims had multiple benefits. The children got badly needed psychological support, they were removed from hostile environments, and the offenders were often apprehended.

“They were just waiting to be found,” he said. “If you just focus on those who possess and traffic in this stuff, you miss the children and the abusers.”

His new approach drew the attention of superiors. In 2012, Mr. Cole founded ICE’s victim identification program outside Washington with a high-tech computer lab, where analysts digest tips, examine evidence and send reports to the field.

The effort has earned praise from advocates and from victims and their families, who say survivors cannot begin to recover until they are discovered.

“The psychological injuries are lifelong and affect their functioning in family life, work life, everything,” said Carol Hepburn, a lawyer who has represented more than a dozen people who were sexually exploited as children. “It means so much to the families and the victims to know that law enforcement had been looking for them. Jim has been a big part of that effort.”

​Mr. Cole said credit belongs to ICE agents and​ those with domestic and overseas law enforcement agencies. ​He added that the National Center has been particularly instrumental in the search for victims.

His line of work is gratifying, but can be a psychological grind, he said. Not only is it hard to watch the videos, but the search is often fruitless if offenders are careful enough not to include telltale information.

If the information is there, it’s often contained in the​family-style photos that abusers upload alongside the pornography. “It can be jarring examining horrific videos and then these photos of kids smiling,” Mr. Cole said.

The agent has pushed other law-enforcement agencies to adopt his approach and has spoken at dozens of conventions about finding victims. He now chairs the victim identification experts group at Interpol, an international network of 190 police agencies.

Mr. Cole recently took a job at ICE’s headquarters as part of a standard job rotation that will send him to a field office, where he hopes to continue investigating child exploitation.

For all his rescues, he’s haunted by one of his failures, involving a decades-old video of an abuser raping a female toddler. Mr. Cole said the abuser was exceedingly careful: He erased his face and identifying features, and the crime was committed in a room whose walls were covered in a light-blue cloth.

Despite years of investigative effort, no amount of computer enhancement or frame-by-frame analysis has yielded a single clue. The victim is now likely an adult, but that hasn’t stopped Mr. Cole from trying to find her.

“She can’t start the healing process until being identified,” he said. “She deserves to be rescued.”