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Groups Works to Protect Kids from Internet Crime

Groups Works to Protect Kids from Internet Crime
America is the number one producer and consumer of child pornography in the world. We speak to people who are working to protect children from internet crimes.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Child pornography is unfortunately not confined to the worst of the worst X-rated shops anymore; the internet has brought such images as close as your computer. But what the internet brings, the internet can also take away. A new branch of law enforcement has been developed to track down internet child pornography to its source, and to find the people who are accessing and trading child pornography. These law enforcement officers are getting help from organizations like Innocent Justice, a San Diego-based foundation dedicated to finding people who possess internet child pornography and tracking down child sexual offenders. With me is the founder and president of the Innocent Justice Foundation, Heather Steele. Welcome, Heather. Thank you for coming in.


HEATHER STEELE (Founder and President, Innocent Justice Foundation): Thank you. Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And I'd like to welcome Sergeant Chuck Arnold. He is part of the San Diego Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Sergeant Arnold, welcome.

SGT. CHUCK ARNOLD (San Diego Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force): Thank you. Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Heather, I want to start out by you sharing a bit of what brought you to founding this foundation. You had a life-changing experience that led you to form Innocent Justice and I wonder if you could share that with us?

STEELE: Absolutely. Well, I had an experience where I found child pornography on a loved one's computer and I absolutely did not want – know what to do. It was extremely shocking to me and I didn't know who to turn to and who to talk to. And finally I did talk to a friend who was a therapist and who recommended that, you know, this person and I go to therapy together to talk through some issues that this person had been previously abused as a child and that perhaps going to therapy would help this person, and that's all we needed to do, that he wasn't a danger to society. And so that's what we did. But over time, I found out that that simply wasn't true and that there were a lot of issues involved with children being in danger.


CAVANAUGH: I see. You know, I would imagine that there are some people who would have the experience you do to, at least the initial one, of finding child pornography and being terribly upset about it but not experiencing it as a turning point in your life because you dedicated yourself to the anti-child abuse campaign so why do you think it affected you that way?

STEELE: Well, I think as time went on it became more and more apparent that this person was a danger to society, and as I came to that realization and I started contacting authorities, what happened was we weren't able to get much action on this person. And we found that by the time I reached the San Diego Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, it was too late to act upon my discovery, which was over a year before. So I think what happened was I found out that if I had come forward immediately when I found the child pornography, there would be children who would be safe now who are not safe. And I think that really devastated me and I really found out that children are being abused now because I didn't come forward, and I wanted to do something about it.

CAVANAUGH: Sergeant Chuck Arnold, I wonder if you would tell us how prevalent is child pornography?

SGT. ARNOLD: Well, child pornography has always been around.


SGT. ARNOLD: The internet has made it just easy to get to. Typically, in the past, people who collected child pornography didn't have an audience to talk to, you didn't – you couldn't go to your local Starbucks or whatever and show and display your child porn and share it with somebody so it was really an internal, kept to yourself type crime. Nowadays, with the internet, we can talk anywhere across the world, two people, and get in chat rooms and groups that find this to be their passion. They have these same – well, illness, if I may, but what they do is they can talk to each other and share how not to get caught, share their actual child pornography, and make it a socially accepted in that group feeling for them.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit about the San Diego Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. When was it formed and what does it do?

SGT. ARNOLD: Well, back in 2000 is when the San Diego was formed and it was two years earlier is when the federal government saw a need to push down funds and resources to the local, state authorities to make an impact. So in 2000, San Diego Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force was founded and from that time we have – it's a compilation of state, local, federal enforcement. There's FBI, ICE and NCIS, Postal, local agencies, Chula Vista, sheriff, the DA's office, the U.S. Attorney's office, RCFL, which is the Regional Computer Forensics Lab, all put together, sharing resources to fight the exploitation of children.

CAVANAUGH: You know, Heather, you talk about three myths that most people have about child pornography. Tell us what they are.

STEELE: Well, these are the myths that I have and I think I run into these all the time when I talk to folks about it, is number one, is that these are just baby in the bathtub images and they're really not. They're images of child sexual assault and crime scene photos of children being abused. The second myth is that people believe that the most – most child pornography is made in Russia or Thailand and that's just not true. The United States is the number one producer and consumer of child pornography in the world. The third myth is that just because someone is viewing child pornography doesn't mean that they're acting out on their fantasies or their desires. And research really shows that there is a one-to-one correlation. It's very strong between viewing child pornography and actually being a child molester. On average, these guys have 22 victims each before they're caught.

CAVANAUGH: And there are, I know, conflicting numbers and conflicting studies, but most studies do show a link between viewing of child pornography and violating. I wonder, Chuck, about Jessica's Law and how that factors into what you are able to do legally to stop people who possess child pornography?

SGT. ARNOLD: Well, Jessica's Law certainly does help. But what we find is most of these people who are possessing child pornography, once they're caught it's their first offense when they're caught. So Jessica's Law doesn't apply to people who haven't been caught necessarily or if we don't know about them yet, there's not much we can do. And so what we're finding is many of these first time offenders are being caught and finding that there's been quite a legacy of either abuse or child porn collection for quite some time. But we're often finding that it is the first time offenders that we're coming in contact with and so it's just a growing trend right now and I think we're really at the beginning of this or the tip of the iceberg.

CAVANAUGH: And when you talk about the internet, the whole concept of possessing child pornography becomes a rather legal, technical issue. Is the – is merely viewing child pornography against the law?

SGT. ARNOLD: Well, if you're viewing it, you then have it in your possession. So it's…

CAVANAUGH: Okay, so is that how the law sees it? Okay. Tell me more about that…


CAVANAUGH: …because I know that there has been a sort of a – some courts have really had to work to decide that.

SGT. ARNOLD: Well, what we're finding and we're getting better but we're having to educate the courts, we're educating everybody. Our generation, this has been a taboo subject. We don't really want to hear about this because, you know, we just can't fathom the loss of innocence of children. And we know it's there but if it's out of sight, out of mind. Well, what has happened with the internet is, it's thrown it right in everybody's face. And this generation is not used to the computers, you know, from our judges to our prosecutors to our law enforcement to our parents, don't understand and have a good grasp of what the internet does and the severity of that. So what people think is, oh, that's just a picture. We've looked at a Playboy, we've looked at this or that and, you know, it's done, it's nice, it's airbrushed, you know, it's not real graphic, it's horrible. But that's not what we have. What we have is actually molesting and tying up and raping and harming of, you know, everything from infants to 13, 14, 15, 16 year olds, and it keeps getting more graphic. So it's an educational process for everybody and what they need to know is that it is getting worse and as these crimes will continue, the education will go and the judges and the prosecutors and things will change. It's similar to the drunk driving laws. I mean, 15, 20 years ago, it was, oh, that's not – you know, we shouldn't do that. Today, it's a pretty serious crime. And I think you'll find these charges doing the same.

CAVANAUGH: So, Heather, I want to know now, what does the Innocent Justice Foundation do to help law enforcement track internet child pornography?

STEELE: Well, what we do is, we support their efforts in two ways. The first way is that we educate the public about these crimes because there's so many misconceptions out there and so few people know just the explosion and the vast scope of these crimes that are happening in America right now. The second way we support them is we help them get the tools and the equipment they need that they don't have to go after these guys. There's only one percent of the cases of the known child pornography traders out there in the U.S. right now are being investigated by law enforcement because they just don't have the resources. They're completely overwhelmed and they're drowning.

CAVANAUGH: Give us an example of the kinds of help that you provide to law enforcement agencies.

STEELE: Well, we worked with the Eastern Michigan Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and they have been responsible for five million people and they have one investigator who's doing all the search warrants and arrest warrants and all the forensic exams with computers. And what he had was old equipment that was five years old and he couldn't do any of the analysis of computers that he really needed for the types of computers that he was seizing now. So we were able to go to his community, his local community in Michigan even during the recession and raise $21,000.00 to buy him new forensic computer equipment, and that has resulted in him being able to rescue more children and we've seen the tangible results of that.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Heather Steele. She is founder and president of the Innocent Justice Foundation. And Sergeant Chuck Arnold, who is part of the San Diego Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. You know, Chuck, in my opening I said something about the fact that you can track the people who are trading and exchanging files of internet child pornography. And can you explain how you do that?

SGT. ARNOLD: Well, that's kind of like asking the chef the secret recipe. There's ways out there and it's not real, real difficult. I mean, people are – we get leads from all over the place. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, for instance. All of your major internet providers report back to the National Center, so they have filtering processes and things that go on, and so they're able to come across child pornography or issues with exploitation of children and pass that through to us. We have certainly, as we educate the public, we have more spouses coming forward, we have where people, you know, have taken things and people have come across something and it's being passed on because they know that we're out there now where before they didn't. So we're getting more and more from the public's awareness saying, oh, look, I've seen something. Things haven't changed at all throughout the years. If you thought you saw a person that was with a child or your child that didn't look right, you would call the police. Well, now we're realizing that if somebody has child pornography or they see the possible molest of children and nowadays everything is on electronic means, more and more is coming to us as the public is educated.

CAVANAUGH: Now Heather was saying that her organization, Innocent Justice, helps law enforcement agencies that need help with resources and etcetera. Well, how is San Diego fixed? How is your internet task force fixed? Do you have enough people, enough resources?

SGT. ARNOLD: Well, no, but I think, in general, law enforcement throughout the country these days don't have the resources they need. From a standpoint for the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force in San Diego, we have six full time detectives and we have resources of about 30 additional federal and local law enforcement. We do well for San Diego but, as Heather said, our caseload, each of the full time detectives are carrying 20, 25 cases and we're really triaging cases. We just can't get to all the cases there are.

CAVANAUGH: Heather, I wonder if you'd talk a little bit about who are the children who wind up in these images, these pornographic images that are traded on the internet.

STEELE: Well, it's really amazing. I think people just would not realize that these children are the same as the children in our neighborhoods, in our homes. These are local children. These are children who are as young as babies in diapers and sometimes with umbilical cords still attached, who are being brutally and graphically sexually assaulted, sometimes in 20 minute movies. And I think the public is just not aware that these are our children. These are children in our neighborhoods. And, you know, I think, you know, people don't realize that it could happen to them. This could be happening to their child. It's – Every child in America is vulnerable. Every child is at risk. There's no child in the United States that isn't – is safe from something like this happening to them.

CAVANAUGH: And as atrocious as the images that you just described, there is still a controversy over whether – when law enforcement can intervene. In other words, I read a story awhile ago about a librarian who brought to the attention of law enforcement that there was someone looking at child pornography on a computer at a library. Now, indeed, that man was arrested but she also lost her job. And so it's a rather complicated mix of signals that we're sending to people about this issue.

STEELE: Well, I think we really need, and this has been an area that we're moving towards doing more education for librarians because I think it's an area that they strongly need to know more about. And what we've seen is that they wouldn't have child pornography magazines in – or books or other types of media in the library but yet some of them allow child pornography to be accessed on the internet within their libraries. And I think if they got the right perspective and understood a little bit more about it, they would do everything they could to make sure that didn't happen, and if they saw it happening, to call law enforcement. And we've actually seen some civil cases where they've been sued for not coming forward and reporting it when it was happening. So, you know, I think librarians don't want to have a lot of registered sex offenders coming in and using their computers in front of children. I think they just need to understand and learn a little bit more about the crime.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering what kind of successes that you've had with the Innocent Justice Foundation? Have you had success in actually using your funds to catch people involved with child pornography?

STEELE: Yes, absolutely, and we have a recent case that's been very gratifying for us and that's in Western Michigan, we helped 12 investigators get a mobile forensic unit so that when they do search warrants they can go out and view the computers onsite and see if they can find the child pornography. In a certain recent case, they did that and they were able to find images that a person had produced in the home of five and six year old boys, one boy who was 14 years old. And they were able to arrest that person onsite and put them into jail. And because of the strong evidence that they got immediately onsite, he pled guilty and it was the fastest case that they ever had adjudicated and now he'll be going to jail for a very, very long time. And those children were rescued the day they got there and did the search warrant.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you both a question. Chuck, how do you keep doing this work without going nuts?

SGT. ARNOLD: You know, 20 years in law enforcement and you never have seen it all because things are always changing. But I'll tell you, the most rewarding work I've done is this. That's what drives me, I think, is knowing that there's children out there, true innocent victims. I work with a great group of people and it makes it very easy.

CAVANAUGH: And Heather.

STEELE: Well, I think, you know, it can be very, very difficult to do this work but when you look at the alternative of not doing the work and so many people not knowing that they need to come forward when they find it, it's really important that we all do the work, that we continue to do the work, and that we continue to make inroads in educating people about this because the alternative is just too fearsome to contemplate.

CAVANAUGH: What advice do you give to people who was trying to protect their children? What can people do to help?

STEELE: Well, I think, you know, first of all is, is the education is really key to understand if you find child pornography on someone's cell phone, on their iPod, on their computer, on their Xbox, there are a variety of places where you can find it, that you need to report it immediately even if it is someone that you love and you couldn't believe that this is happening. That's the number one thing. I mean, I think the other things we need to keep in mind are to have really good dialogues with our kids, talk about the possibility of these sorts of things happening to them, and try to prevent them. And trying to prevent child sexual abuse in general, you know, for children, minimizing one-on-one interactions with your child and an adult even sometimes adults within the family, I think there's a lot of things that parents need to step up to the plate and do to keep their kids safe.

CAVANAUGH: And, Chuck, is there anything like early intervention if – are there any treatments available for people who have what you described earlier as an illness? The person who's looking at child pornography, is there anything, if you catch them early enough, some sort of treatment available?

SGT. ARNOLD: Well, there certainly is therapy available. It has been around and I'm sure that will increase and improve as we go. You know, depending on who you talk to, you know, some say it isn't curable, some say it is. You know, so – and I'm not really qualified to answer whether it is or isn't there. But I will say going along kind of with what Heather said, is what we can do is we can be parents. The parents that we are, the good parents we are, but we're afraid of the internet, we're afraid of that electronic age because that's not our age. So the more we can learn, the more we can communicate with our children, the more we can do the same thing we've always done, we've taught parents. You know, our parents taught us to cross the street looking both ways. Our parents never taught us how to be on the internet and be safe, therefore, we don't teach our kids that because we just kind of shy away from it. Our kids know better. Our kids set the VCR. Our kids set our phone. But there's so much that we need to do as a parent. To just continue being a parent, the dialogue, find out what they're going – doing, and truly don't be afraid to get involved and ask questions because you just need to know what they're doing.

CAVANAUGH: And you wanted to add something quickly?

STEELE: Yes, absolutely. I think 66% of the Association for Treatment of Sexual Abusers, those members of that organization feel that there's no hope for a cure in the future for pedophilia, and 88% fear recidivism after treatment. So I don't even think they think there's a possibility that there's a cure for this.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you both for coming in and sharing what is a very difficult subject. Heather Steele is the president of the Innocent Justice Foundation. And Sergeant Chuck Arnold is part of the San Diego Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. If you want to continue this conversation, please post your comment online at Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes.

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