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Child sex abuse imagery crimes on the rise in Clark County

Law enforcement wages never-ending war as proliferation of devices, advances in technology lead to surge in photos, videos of abuse, exploitation

By , Columbian Breaking News Reporter
3 Photos
Digital forensics investigator Christopher Prothero works on a computer during an investigation in the Digital Evidence Cybercrime Unit at Vancouver Police West Precinct.
Digital forensics investigator Christopher Prothero works on a computer during an investigation in the Digital Evidence Cybercrime Unit at Vancouver Police West Precinct. (amanda cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The proliferation of internet-enabled devices and an easing of access is partly to blame for an explosion in the amount of child sex abuse imagery online.

With the increase in content, the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has experienced a jump in the criminal cases it handles.

The amount of imagery appears to be growing more and more rapidly.

“It’s hard to see the numbers continue to go up,” Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik said. “As a prosecutor, when we see a troubling trend, we’ll try to move in on it, try to solve it, but this issue seems to be getting worse. There are more and more of these depictions on the internet, and law enforcement seems to be dealing with a never-ending amount of work on these cases.”

Detectives said they are dealing with a flood of tips about potential perpetrators.

“Everyone’s on the internet far more often now than they were five to 10 years ago,” said Sgt. Joe Graaff, a member of the Vancouver Police Department’s Digital Evidence Cybercrime Unit. “Finding and trading these images is much simpler than it was a decade ago. You really had to know what you were doing on a computer to find it. Now, you can just go to one out of 1,000 different communications platforms.”

The quantity of photos and videos of child sex abuse available online is staggering. In August, Alan Donald Higgs, a 62-year-old Vancouver man, was sentenced to four years in prison on charges of possession of child sex abuse imagery and for coercing a 13-year-old girl into sending him nude photos. Officers recovered a memory card that stored roughly 2,850 images and another card containing 77 videos.

That’s a moderate number of images and videos for a single criminal case. Other cases have involved suspects who collected tens of thousands of files. Higgs’ collection represents a meager 0.0041 percent of what was detected by technology companies in 2019.

The companies reported 69.1 million files of images and videos to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a federally designated clearinghouse for the imagery that works with law enforcement agencies. The previous record of 45 million reports was set in 2018.

‘Far more referrals’

The Vancouver Police Department and Clark County Sheriff’s Office are both part of the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, one of 61 such task force groups working under a program administered by the Department of Justice. It aims to keep agencies — including international partners like Interpol, Puerto Rico police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police — connected and working together on cases involving possession, distribution and production of child exploitation material.

Graaff said the state task force allows the police department to work under set guidelines for investigating child sexual exploitation on the internet and to obtain funding from the DOJ for things like training and forensic software.

Most importantly, Graaff said, the task force manages an online system for sharing data and receiving cases to investigate. In Washington, the Seattle Police Department leads the task force.

The Vancouver Police Department processes all referrals for Southwest Washington and gives leads to investigators in Clark, Cowlitz and Klickitat counties, among others.

Here’s how a typical investigation works: a technology company like Google, Facebook or Microsoft reports illegal content found on their platforms to the national center, which generates a “cyber tip” and analyzes the submitted content. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children figures out where the intelligence should go. Once local officers have that information, they file multiple search warrants, build evidence and form probable cause to arrest and prosecute a suspect.

As of Feb. 17, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children already had generated 44 cyber tips for Southwest Washington this year, according to Graaff. Last year, the police department’s cybercrime unit received 54 tips, he said.

“Generally speaking, about five years ago we would get about 15 tips,” Graaff said.

One sergeant, three detectives, two civilian investigators and an in-house Department of Homeland Security special agent make up the police department’s cybercrime unit. By law, only police officers and the civilian investigators can view the illegal content.

The group works closely with two sheriff’s deputies, Craig McCollum and Justin Messman. McCollum previously worked out of the cybercrime unit’s office, at the Vancouver Police Department’s West Precinct, until 2018, when the county made cuts throughout departments. He was recalled to the sheriff’s office, where he continues to do computer forensics. One year after the change, the county hired Messman, largely due to the deluge of cyber tips.

Messman said the sheriff’s office originally planned that internet crimes against children should take up about 15 percent of his workload. He said it’s closer to 80 percent of his job.

The police department’s cybercrime unit also examines evidence for homicide and missing persons cases, frauds and forgeries. Its primary role is child exploitation investigations, basically out of necessity.

“There are far more referrals for child exploitation than any other crime,” Graaff said.

Criminal cases increasing

Clark County prosecutors filed three cases in 2009 involving charges of first- and second-degree possession or dealing images of child sexual exploitation. Five years later, they filed 15 cases. Last year, there were 23 cases filed, according to data provided by the prosecutor’s office. Golik said it is uncommon for his office to not file charges for cases involving child sex abuse imagery.

Over that 10-year period, Golik said an additional prosecutor was hired to help with the caseload, bringing the number of prosecutors working at the Children’s Justice Center to four. The attorney was not hired specifically to litigate child sexual exploitation cases.

“The increase is significant, but these cases are pretty straightforward. They all have strong physical evidence, but that’s not all they do over at the (Children’s Justice Center),” Golik said.

The attorneys at the center are specially trained in child abuse law and prosecute child abusers, he said. The same building houses law enforcement, social service workers and mental health advocates.

“I think Clark County has a very good model for how to handle these cases. Everyone is in one location, instead of spread out. The work is hard on everyone involved, especially the victims, and the (Children’s Justice Center) is a benefit that helps us keep up with everything,” Golik said.

First-degree possession of depictions of a minor engaged in sexually explicit content carries a presumptive prison sentence of 13 months. The sentence is typically six months for the same offense in the second degree. The charges of first- and second-degree dealing in the depictions result in presumptive sentences of 17 months to nine months, respectively, for convicted defendants. Production of child sex abuse imagery, often charged as sexual exploitation of a minor, carries a presumptive sentence of three years. Defendants are also ordered to a period of community custody, and they must register as a sex offender.

In 2010, first-degree dealing in depictions was elevated from a class C felony to a class B felony, and possession of the imagery was divided into two different degrees. Senior Deputy Prosecutor James Smith, who leads prosecution for the Children’s Justice Center, said the Legislature made the change to increase penalties for such crimes.

The amendments to the law reads: “The Legislature finds that the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse of children constitutes a government objective of surpassing importance.”

Working with tech

Before cases are referred to prosecutors for potential charges, investigators’ most valuable points of contact are technology companies, which are legally required to report images of child sex abuse when they find them. The companies are not required to search for them, however.

Larger companies have stepped up surveillance on their platforms, but The New York Times reported that the efforts can still come up short. It may take months for companies to respond to questions or requests. Sometimes they respond that there are no records, even for reports they initiated themselves. Federal law requires companies to preserve material about their reports of imagery for three months.

Graaff said local law enforcement has an amicable relationship with the companies, but have found some are easier to work with than others. Dropbox, a cloud storage software and file hosting service, can take too long to respond. It has returned unfulfilled search warrants for unexplained reasons, according to the sergeant. Tumblr, a microblogging and social networking website, can also be hit or miss, he said.

A Dropbox spokesperson said in an email that the company is committed to working with law enforcement.

“We’ve reviewed requests from Washington state law enforcement, and we believe we’ve responded promptly to all requests to support their efforts, usually within 14 days. We don’t return warrants without explanation as a matter of policy,” the spokesperson said.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and law enforcement agencies throughout the country have commended Dropbox for its partnership in combating child sex abuse and imagery, according to the spokesperson.

Tumblr responded similarly, stating the safety of communities was the company’s top concern.

“Content that is harmful to minors, including child sexual abuse imagery, is abhorrent and has no place on our platform. We have a zero tolerance policy for this type of content and we continuously invest in the enforcement of this policy. This includes industry-standard machine monitoring, a team of highly trained expert human moderators and user tools that make it easy to report abuse,” a Tumblr spokesperson said in an email.

The local task force officers said the larger companies like Microsoft and Google have improved their response times over the years, as they have put in place more resources and systems for generating reports.

“As a consumer, I appreciate Microsoft’s privacy policies, and how strict they are. As law enforcement, they go through our search warrants with a fine-tooth comb, so we have to make sure everything is perfect. … It’s frustrating but helps in the long run. We don’t want these cases to be dismissed in court,” McCollum said.

While Graaff said the companies share some responsibility in curtailing the growing amount of imagery online, McCollum wasn’t willing to take as strong of a stance.

“They’re just trying to keep up like everyone else,” he said.

Companies large and small prioritize cases with any child in imminent danger. The investigators’ primary concern is sexual abuse actively happening. The tech companies are willing to respond more quickly if that’s the case.

In October, a 26-year-old Washougal man was arrested on suspicion of raping an infant and toddler and distributing images of the assaults on the internet. A cybercrime unit detective began investigating a tip from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children when operators of a video game community forum forwarded information to the center about a user posting child sex abuse imagery.

Chat messages indicated the man was actively abusing a child, according to a probable cause affidavit. The cyber tip was listed as “priority 1,” a rare classification that typically indicates immediate danger to a child.

In profanity-laced chat messages included in the affidavit, the user talked about assaulting the child, and sent a four-minute video of an infant being abused, according to the affidavit. Later on the night the tip was received, Stephan R. Price was taken into custody.

Escalating behaviors

The cybercrime unit officers said it’s hard to pin down why trafficking child sexual exploitation imagery appears to be growing so rapidly. They believe there are not more people who have a sexual interest in children. Rather, it’s easier for people to use technology to find what they want.

“I had a suspect tell me recently in an interview ‘It’s not so hard. You’re always three steps away.’ Technologies have changed, the difficulty of finding these things has changed. People are trading them on messaging apps, on video game messaging platforms. That’s a newer, big one,” Graaff said.

Facebook Messenger was responsible for nearly 12 million reports of child sex abuse material in 2018, according to The New York Times.

The officers said the availability of the content has allowed younger people, mostly men, who may have gone their whole lives without acting upon sexual impulses, to seek it out.

Graaff and his colleagues were also quick to point out that they believe people who view the imagery have a high proclivity to escalate toward hands-on abuse. They pointed to the work of forensic psychologist Joe Sullivan.

In the vast majority of cases, according to Sullivan, people have been aware of their sexual interest in children since as young as 12 to 15 years old. Some of them have managed to live with their unhealthy fascinations, but interviews with men arrested for possession of child sexual exploitation imagery indicated that 80 percent of them committed “contact offenses.”

“Most people I’ve interviewed say they would never touch a child, but as I continue to ask questions they say things like, ‘Well, I don’t think this applies, but …’ and go on to tell us instances of sexual abuse. They just haven’t been caught,” Graaff said.

While some of the imagery originates with family abuse, it is also connected to another fast-growing worldwide criminal enterprise: sex trafficking. Dr. Kathie Mathis, a mental health psychologist of three decades who serves as the training director for Vancouver-based National Women’s Coalition Against Violence and Exploitation, said the two illegal businesses support each other.

Children in the images are vulnerable victims who have been coerced or forced into abuse, Mathis said. That vulnerability can originate from a number of factors. They might be foster children, or kids left alone with an authority figure whom they trust. They could simply live in a single-parent household without much structure, she said.

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“Traffickers find out these vulnerabilities, and they’re coerced and then threatened to perform. Whether it’s pornography or just the sale of sex with children, when you are talking about an industry, a multibillion-dollar industry, supply and demand requires more and more children, and the people that are supplying are getting paid huge sums of money,” Mathis said.

Traffickers generate more than $150 billion in profits by victimizing millions of people worldwide, according to Covenant House. Children and youth experiencing homelessness are prime targets; across the country, as many as 20,000 children are forced into prostitution by human trafficking networks every year, according to the homeless youth services agency.

Children and young adults are “worth” more than their adult counterparts, according to a United Nations report. So, there is a greater incentive to abduct and harm children over adults to make higher profits.

Mathis has worked with survivors who started to be trafficked when they were 8 years old or younger. For many of them, she said, the abuse is forever imprinted in their brains — they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, similar to prisoners of war.

“One of the biggest obstacles I face when I’m out doing training is the response, ‘Those are other countries.’ Trafficking and child sex abuse is huge in America. It’s happening in every state, every county, and it’s in your community. We can’t and don’t want to comprehend something like child sex abuse, but we need to mature as a society if we’re all going to be part of a solution,” Mathis said.

Limited options

Defendants convicted of crimes related to child sexual exploitation are admitted into the state Department of Correction’s sex offender treatment program based on their calculated risk to re-offend. There are a limited number of available seats.

There are generally 10 to 12 clients in a group within a treatment program, said Janelle Guthrie, DOC communications director.

People found guilty solely of possessing the imagery aren’t likely to be a high enough priority for admission into a program, Guthrie said. However, inmates who have convictions for possession as well as for other sexual offenses, like production of child sexual abuse imagery, “may be included in these programs,” Guthrie said.

The Sex Offender Treatment and Assessment Program has prison programs and one community program statewide. There are three prison programs for men at Airway Heights Corrections Center near Spokane and another two programs are offered in separate sections of the Monroe Correctional Complex. A women’s program is offered at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor.

The Department of Corrections also has eight community offices providing community-based services, Guthrie said. Vancouver has a field office with two therapists, she said.

“Our program is approximately two years, with one year being in the prison system and one year being upon release in the community,” Guthrie said. “We are one of only a handful of states that offer community treatment and, while our outcome study is still underway, we believe this has significant impacts on reduced recidivism.”

With the increase in child sexual abuse imagery crimes, there are efforts within DOC to develop new tools for measuring the risks associated with recidivism, she said.

Columbian Breaking News Reporter