Their fantasies are nightmares for everyone else.
Child pornographers — people who exchange images and videos of children being raped and tortured — have found a home and a hunting ground on the Internet.
The number of arrests by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Child Predator Section increased from 19 in 2012 to 145 this year, mainly because the budget for such cases more than tripled in that time, from $1.3 million to $4.1 million, said spokesman J.J. Abbott. Cases in U.S. Attorney David Hickton’s office in Pittsburgh increased from 25 to 35 between 2012 and 2014. No costs were available.
“We’re very busy,” said FBI Special Agent Gregg Frankhouser, who is assigned to the bureau’s Violent Crimes Against Children Task Force in Pittsburgh.
In the United States, most offenders are white males, but beyond that there is no apparent pattern, according to several studies. Offenders range from 20-somethings to octogenarians and from the habitually unemployed to civic leaders.
National estimates of their numbers vary widely. A 2013 study by researchers at the University of New Hampshire and the University of Massachusetts identified more than 244,000 computers in the United States that used a single file-sharing network, Gnutella, to distribute or receive child pornography.
Other studies of file-sharing networks have produced estimates as high as 1.8 million computers worldwide. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has identified more than 115 million images of child pornography since 2002.
Most stories about child pornography focus on high-profile offenders such as priests and college professors or on attempts by victims to recover damages from offenders. Fewer stories focus on the people who voluntarily enter this world to catch the offenders and save some of the victims.
Essential to investigators’ work is verifying that photos and videos stored on a suspect’s computer, phone or flash drives are, in fact, child pornography. That means looking at the images — no matter how distasteful or violent.
“There are certain days when you just go, ‘I’m done; I’m not looking at this anymore,’ because you’ve seen enough,” Frankhouser said.
The good days happen when investigators rescue a child, said FBI Special Agent Tanya Evanina. They remove an abuser from the child’s life and refer the children and their families to specialists who can help them.
“That kind of rejuvenates you,” said Evanina, who has 10 years of experience, first with police in Greenville, S.C. “You think your work is worthwhile, and you’re maintaining the innocence of children.”
Few people in law enforcement talked about the effect of the work on investigators when Sgt. Jack Kelly started investigating child abuse 20 years ago. Supervisors have to pay attention and gauge when an investigator needs a break or reassignment, said Kelly, an investigator with the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office and commander of the state Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
“It’s our responsibility to make sure they’re working in a friendly environment and that they have the freedom to get up and walk away,” Kelly said.
Some investigations are uglier than others. The Internet allows offenders to live-stream assaults on children and take requests from their audience about what to do next, said Beth Medina, CEO of the nonprofit Innocent Justice Foundation in Encinitas, Calif.
The foundation trains law officers to help them cope.
“Some cops can stay in it for years and years and years; some find they can only do it for three months or six months,” Medina said.
Known as “vicarious trauma,” the effects range from physical problems such as fatigue, headaches and high blood pressure to mental problems such as trouble with concentrating and negative attitudes, she said.
Other symptoms include mood swings, irritability or desensitization. Investigators often pull away from their families — particularly their kids — in an effort to protect them, Medina said: “They don’t want their family to know the kinds of things they’re seeing.”
The FBI gives its agents annual psychological evaluations.
Duane Tabak, a special agent in the attorney general’s Child Predator Section, said one of the main coping mechanisms is talking things over with peers.
“Your team is your family. We watch over each other.”
Calling material that exploits children “pornography” makes it sound more benign than it is, Hickton said. These are the worst cases the U.S. Attorney’s Office handles, he said. “They are deeply disturbing.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Smolar, who leads the office’s Project Safe Childhood initiative, said some cases start with a family member or acquaintance discovering child pornography on a suspect’s computer. But most come from tips from the Center for Missing and Exploited Children or from undercover investigators who comb file-sharing networks that offer child pornography.
Special software makes “digital fingerprints” of questionable images and compares them to a database of known child pornography images, said Deputy Attorney General Anthony Marmo, who works in the Pittsburgh office of the Attorney General’s Child Predator Section.
“Because the Internet has made (child porn) so available, the demand has skyrocketed,” Smolar said.
From an initial tip, investigators must track the source computer’s Internet address, find its physical location, then get a search warrant to examine the computer.
Prosecutors then must review the evidence before seeking an indictment.
“I don’t bring the case without looking at the videos and images,” Smolar said.
For that reason, Hickton rotates people through positions to give them breaks.
“There is the risk that the people working hard to find this, and prosecute this, could be impacted negatively because the images are so disturbing and vile,” he said.
Some studies say child pornographers have become more graphic and brutal, encouraged by the “peer” support they get from others online. Evanina and Smolar said that has been their experience.
Online groups have worsened the problem, Hickton believes.
“One of the most disturbing things we’ve seen is people using their own children and then trading the images,” he said.
Brian Bowling is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-325-4301 or firstname.lastname@example.org.