FOX16 Investigates: Is COVID-19 causing an uptick in child exploitation cases?

Investigates

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The COVID-19 pandemic may be behind an uptick in child exploitation cases that the FBI and US Attorney General’s offices are seeing.

More kids are at home, spending more time on their smart devices and computers and learning virtually. Some of them may be unsupervised while their parents are at work. Predators know it, and they’re taking advantage of it.

“More people are home, more people are accessing the internet,” said Kristin Bryant, Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas. “It’s hard that parents are trying to work”.

“It’s always been a steady stream of these cases,” agreed Tonja Sablatura, the Supervisory Special Agent of the Violent Crimes Task Force for the Little Rock FBI Field Office. “Since COVID-19 hit, we’ve had, we’ve opened more cases this year than we did in years prior”.

Sablatura and her team find the predators. Bryant and her team prosecute them.

Because technology is an ever-evolving landscape, every year there are more and more cases of child exploitation, and that’s without a pandemic forcing kids to stay home.

“Predators on the internet are experts at finding your weakness,” Sablatura said.

And especially when the target is a child.

“They’re tricked into thinking they’re talking to a 13-year-old when they’re really talking to a 60-year-old adult behind a computer sitting at home,” Bryant added.

It’s easy for kids and teenagers to be swept up in the guise.

“[Someone] who is portraying themselves as someone who is very popular, someone who is very beautiful, very sexy,” Sablatura continued. “And they end up exchanging compromising photographs of themselves.”

From there, it snowballs and the victim often feels trapped.

“The predator will use those photographs to extort them to potentially producing more sexually explicit photographs or requesting that they pay,” Sablatura explained.

Sometimes parents catch on.

“We have lots of cases where minors, luckily their parents intercepted them before they were set to meet someone,” Bryant said.

That’s not always what happens, though.

One case in particular sticks with Sablatura.

“It was Kacie Woody. And her dad had done everything right,” Sablatura said.

Woody was a Faulkner County teen who, in 2002, thought she was talking with a boy close to her age.

“She was 13 at the time,” Sablatura said. “But in fact, she was talking with a 40-somethinig-year-old male in California.”

His name was David Fuller, and he slowly learned  more about Woody.

“He was using any information she could provide him on the internet such as where she lived, how many siblings she had, did she have pets, what were the working hours of her father,” Sablatura explained.

Fuller used that information to find Woody. Then he abducted her. Investigators tracked them to a storage unit in Conway.

“By the time law enforcement opened the garage door to the unit, they heard a gunshot and he had already killed Kacie,” Sablatura continued. “And he had committed suicide by the time they got to him.”

It’s tough when parents want to give their kids independence as they grow up.

Both Bryant and Sablatura said effects of child exploitation are long-lasting and traumatic.

Bryant’s office typically prosecutes 50 to 60 cases of child exploitation in a given year. And there’s usually more than one victim.

“Each one of those cases usually has more than one victim,” Sablatura elaborated. “Sometimes three, four, five, six, up to 20 victims. The numbers, they don’t lie.”

But where should they draw the line when it comes to the World Wide Web?

“Parents, you cannot chaperone your kids enough,” Sablatura said. “If you think you know all the email accounts your child is using, all the applications they’re using, I would say most of the time you’re wrong.”

Bryant agreed, “I don’t think that children should have accounts that parents don’t know the passwords to, that parents aren’t actively checking”.

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