Investigators are inundated with tips and the number of cases being prosecuted is nearly double that of just a few years ago
Prosecution of child pornography cases spiked last year in Western New York. Between the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Erie County District Attorney, 80 cases were prosecuted last year. That’s almost double the number of cases prosecuted in 2017.
“There are times where we’re finding child pornography involving children who are 10 or 12 months old. That’s very shocking, seeing those images and videos and trying to figure out why someone would have interest in that stuff,” said said Michael Hockwater, a detective on the FBI’s Child Exploitation Task Force.
Cases the FBI task force handle range from a man who photographed himself sexually abusing a three-year-old, to a woman who allegedly took naked images of both a one- and four-year-old, to a middle school teacher accused of using a GoPro to capture “sexually explicit” activity between two students.
“What you’re seeing is a visual depiction of rape and sexual abuse of a child,” said James P. Kennedy Jr., the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York. “By viewing it, it thus increases the demand and more people, more kids get abused as a result.”
The increased prosecutions reflect an explosion of child pornography online.
In 2019, technology firms flagged more than 45 million photos and videos as child sexual abuse, according to an investigation by The New York Times. That number more than doubled in one year.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received a record 18 million tips to its hotline last year. By comparison, the tip line received a total of 565,000 calls during its first 10 years, between 1998 and 2008.
“The problem is not going away,” said Hockwater. “It’s become easier for offenders to victimize kids.”
Messaging apps like Kik and games like Fortnite are especially problematic, Hockwater said. He blames the ease of access for the boom in child pornography images that are available online.
Despite the increasing number of children victimized and images produced and shared, funding nationally for agencies fighting child pronography has remained stagnant, around $70 million, since 2009.
Authorities say they could be pursuing even more cases if given the resources.
“In a perfect world, we’d say, ‘Can we have double the amount of agents working on this?’ but we’d just have double the amount of cases,” Hockwater said.
The web is awash with child pornography.
The increase stems from a combination of factors, “a perfect storm,” as described by Kennedy, the U.S. Attorney who heads the Buffalo office. There’s the growth of the internet, and, in the past, a perception by many that child pornography was a victimless crime and the resulting indifference of federal authorities until the early 2000s.
The federal government launched Project Safe Childhood to address the production, distribution and possession of child pornography in 2006. Prior, there was much less child pornography online, about 3,000 images, according to The New York Times. Today, nearly one million new photos and videos are detected weekly. Investigators say the growth is driven by demand.
“We’ve been playing catch-up,” Kennedy said.
The internet’s inundation with these images has reached a “breaking point” and traditional review techniques and investigations cannot keep up with it, according to a paper published by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
There are at least 30 child pornography sites on the dark, or encrypted, web, said FBI Director Christopher Wray. Once a site is live, it expands rapidly. One site gained 150,000 users in its first seven weeks of operation.
“Some of the sites out there, you have to submit child pornography to the site and have to be validated by the person in charge of that site before you take part,” said Hockwater, the task force detective.
State and federal authorities in Western New York are investigating and prosecuting more child porn cases.
Last year, federal prosecutors filed 58 child pornography-related cases. That’s up from the previous four years, when an average of 38 cases were filed annually.
According to Kennedy’s office, those prosecutions make up 12 percent of the U.S. Attorney’s total criminal caseload in the Western District — the 17 western counties in the state spanning from the Southern Tier to Rochester, Buffalo and the Finger Lakes.
While Kennedy can’t pinpoint the exact reason for the uptick, he believes it’s partially due to heightened awareness. Victims feel more comfortable to come forward and community members are more vigilant.
“From the (Catholic) Church to the ‘Me Too’ movement, there’s an increasing sensitivity and greater communication with law enforcement,” Kennedy said.
Due to the proliferation of cases, the U.S. attorney’s office only files charges when it believes the alleged offender poses a further risk and there are aggravating factors to the case.
Task force members and federal and local prosecutors take several factors into consideration when deciding which charges to press and at what level they’ll be prosecuted.
In 2019, the U.S. Attorney’s office received and investigated 130 instances related to child pornography. That means they worked with detectives and conducted a forensic analysis or search warrant for each case. The office pressed charges in 58 cases. Less egregious cases are passed on to county district attorneys and prosecuted in state courts.
The Erie County District Attorney prosecuted 22 child pornography cases in 2019.
“Disturbing is a kind word,” said John Flynn, the Erie County District Attorney. “Possession and promotion of child pornography is a heinous crime. It is a memorialization of actual sexual abuse.”
In Niagara County, fewer cases are funneled to the district attorney’s office. The Niagara County District Attorney has prosecuted 3 to 5 cases annually since 2015.
In Monroe County, which includes Rochester, prosecutions by the district attorney have dropped, from 57 in 2015 to 10 last year. Sandra Doorley, the DA, said more cases there are being handled by federal prosecutors.
Investigations and arrests by the state police involving child pornography have increased in recent years. Arrests are up 66 percent over the past five years. Last year, state police received 5,382 tips across New York and made 280 arrests.
Inside the investigation
At FBI headquarters in downtown Buffalo, files lie scattered across the floor and desks, and in the cabinets of the Innocent Images Office. A sign hangs on the door, which is kept shut, warning those who enter about the sensitive and graphic evidence which might be displayed inside the room.
The local FBI branch is one of the 80 offices worldwide that hosts a Child Exploitation Task Force. The task force is comprised of six detectives — three federal agents and three from local local police departments in Cheektowaga, the Town of Tonawanda and the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office.
They spend their days, and oftentimes, nights, online, posing as children who have already been contacted by reported perpetrators, building a case against them.
Currently, the local office is investigating “hundreds” of leads, according to Hockwater, the Cheektowaga detective assigned to the task force.
“There’s no end in sight,” he said.
A tip from a parent, the public or a cooperating law enforcement agency usually triggers an investigation. Due to the volume of reports, certain cases take precedence. They include those involving a person in a position of trust with regular access to children, and cases where a suspect has solicited a child for videos and/or pictures.
“A phone is just as dangerous as a gun,” Hockwater said. “You can open up an application today and be talking to someone across the world in 10 minutes.”
Oftentimes, that’s what’s happening. Hockwater recalls a case where he went undercover, posing as teen and talking to a convicted sexual predator in California. The FBI’s network allows agents in one region to open an investigation, analysts to nail down details about a suspect, and a different agency or bureau branch to execute a search warrant.
Once a warrant is served, agents, examiners and analysts scan all devices at the FBI Regional Computer Forensic Laboratory, looking for images and videos depicting child sexual abuse. Content depicting confirmed child pornography is logged and tagged with unique information, like a fingerprint, and compared against the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s database.
The center then notifies those victims.
The entire process — from police receiving a tip, through the investigation, prosecution and appeal — can go on for upwards of four years.
Victimization can go on long after that, though.
“The bad man’s going to kill me … He said he would kill me.”
Those are comments a mother revealed to a federal court here in an impact statement that she recalled her three-year-old daughter saying after she was photographed being sexually assaulted. The man who assaulted the toddler was found guilty. But the images he captured remain on the web. That can lead to revictimization.
“We are learning from survivors that it is, in fact, a new and distinct trauma, a new and distinct victimization, every time they are made aware that their images are found in another offender’s collection,” said Lanae Holmes, Director for Case Services for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Holmes said there have been cases where victims have been contacted by sexual offenders years after the initial abuse happened.
“They have survived the sexual abuse but continue to be victimized by the distribution of their images,” Holmes said.
Young girls are the most common victims; 53 percent of known victims were under the age of 10 when the images and videos were taken, according to the study the center published.
Before the internet’s explosion, as Kennedy explained, federal prosecutors would see a few child pornography cases. They would usually stem from someone caught at the border with a VHS tape purchased while traveling abroad. Now, as many people carry smartphones, which are essentially personal computers, sexual offenders can have terabytes of pornographic data at their fingertips.
The ease of access through apps, like Kik, opens endless opportunities for offenders to have contact with children from around the globe. Authorities report the age of offenders is dropping since they can easily contact, entice and solicit images from underage children.
“We think it’s one person talking to one child but at the end of the case it’s one person with three, four, five hundred victims, or a thousand victims,” said Hockwater, the detective on the FBI task force.
Most offenders are white men; they come from all socioeconomic backgrounds.
Hockwater said combing through the images and videos isn’t easy, but necessary to build strong cases.
“We’re able to really impact a family’s life by catching some of these guys that are doing this stuff. The reward is far worth the hard work we put into it,” said Hockwater. “The more we do on the front end to build the case, the less the victims and families have to get involved.”
Eighty-two percent of those prosecuted in federal court plead or are convicted of charges. Last year, most were sentenced to at least 61 months.
Released sex offenders are less likely to be rearrested than those who served time for other types of crime. But those who do recidivate are more likely to be guilty of another rape or sex-related charge, according to recent data released by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.
“There’s more into the mental health aspect of this of trying to figure out why does someone reoffend, why does someone want to view images of an infant being sexually abused,” Hockwater said. “Until we figure that out, we’re missing key parts of this puzzle of how to stop this problem.”