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Child pornography cases are rising in Maine and nationally, but so is detection

In this photo taken Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013,  computer examiner Sgt. Rick Nelson, of the Peterborough, N.H. police department works on locating information on a hard drive with Det. Caitlin Rebe of the Hookset, N.H. police department at the state's Internet Crimes Against Children unit in Manchester, N.H.
Jim Cole
AP file
In this photo taken Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013, computer examiner Sgt. Rick Nelson, of the Peterborough, N.H. police department works on locating information on a hard drive with Det. Caitlin Rebe of the Hookset, N.H. police department at the state's Internet Crimes Against Children unit in Manchester, N.H.

The arrest last month of former gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler is shedding light on the problem of sexual exploitation of children. But experts say the sharing of illegal materials is on the rise, and that more data and more investment in prevention are badly needed.

In 2019, a CyberTipline that funnels information to law enforcement agencies across the country received nearly 17 million reports of possible sexually explicit materials involving children. Two years later, that figure topped 29 million, an increase of 73%.

Reports in Maine are up in recent years. The computer crimes unit within state police received roughly 1,200 reports of suspected child pornography last year. But based on the first three months of 2022, the unit is on pace to double those figures.

“Well, this is happening and has been happening for the last 10 years all over the country,” said David Finkelhor, a professor of sociology and director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. “Technology really opened up a pandora’s box on this particular crime. It made it both easier to commit and it also recently has made it easier to catch. So law enforcement has been flooded in recent years by cases of this sort and are conducting many, many investigations and are arresting and prosecuting many more people.”

The arrest of former gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler two weeks ago is once again shining a light on the little-discussed topic. Cutler was charged with four counts of possession of sexually explicit materials involving children under age 12 – felony offenses each punishable by up to five years in prison. He has yet to be indicted by a grand jury, however, and the alleged evidence against him has been sealed by the courts.

Cutler is a high-profile defendant. But Finkelhor said police nationwide are scrambling to keep up.

“There are tens of thousands of people who have provided records involuntarily to law enforcement about having such images,” Finkelhor said. “They have many more people that they can prosecute than they have staff for. It’s a sad commentary on how bad the problem is right now.”

The police investigation into Cutler reportedly began, as many cases do, with the CyberTipline operated by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. More than 1,800 internet service providers, social media platforms and other technology companies file from around the world file reports to the tipline, and the center in turn passes problematic reports onto law enforcement.

The process typically begins when someone either uploads or downloads an image. Electronic service providers, such as Facebook, Google and Instagram, report suspected materials to the tipline. Analysts then review the report and, if necessary, flag it for special police units in the area where the materials were uploaded or downloaded.

Facebook generated more than 22 million of the 29 million reports to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children last year.

“So those numbers are alarming and at the same time they are not very helpful,” said Elizabeth Letourneau, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Publica Health and director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse. “We would like to see much better data coming out of (the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children) or somewhere that really looks at how many actual images are there, how many are added each year and where are they getting added.”

The problem with alarming numbers, Letourneau said, is they suggest the problem is so huge that it cannot be addressed. And that, in turn, leads to a singular focus on finding, arresting and incarcerating people.

“The world has really convinced itself that we can’t prevent this, that this a uniquely unpreventable problem because the people who engage in it are monsters and you cannot prevent or predict what a monster is going to do,” she said.

Research shows that's not true, Letourneau said. But not enough is known about how much of this content is new material — involving new victims — versus older images or videos that are still in circulation. Letourneau also said little is known about the prevalence of sexual attraction to children among adults, although one German study found that 2.7% of adult men acknowledged purposely searching for explicit materials involving children.

Understanding prevalence, she said, is key to developing prevention strategies, so the Johns Hopkins group recently launched research on the topic in the U.S. But Letourneau added that the federal government budgeted just $2 million to child sexual abuse prevention research this year – compared to more than $5 billion spent to incarcerate adults convicted of sex crimes against children, according to a recent study conducted by the Center for Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse.

“At the same time, it is absolutely a preventable public health problem,” Letourneau said. “We have got good data on some strong prevention programs. We just need to broaden our lens to add a prevention focus to the criminal justice focus and to our focus on healing and services for the survivors.”

At full staffing levels, the team at the Maine State Police computer crimes unit is comprised of 21 detectives, special agents and analysts plus several supervisors. The agency has added personnel in recent years in response to the surge in child exploitation cases but also relies on partnerships with other law enforcement agencies.

Analysts review every case and can obtain subpoenas to determine who is linked to an internet protocol, or IP address, where illegal images were shared or downloaded. Detectives then dig deeper with more subpoenas and search warrants. In Cutler’s case, police executed search warrants in Portland and in Brooklin in Hancock County.

Jess Bedard, director of program planning and performance at the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said it is difficult to estimate how prevalent these crimes against children are in Maine because they are so inherently private. But she said organizations that support sexual assault survivors and children’s advocacy groups have seen a steady uptick in demand for help consistent with the increasing number of tips received by state police.

“Last year, in 2021, they saw twice as many cases as they saw on average in the five years before,” Bedard said. “So, certainly, they are seeing more cases. Do we know that that means it is happening more often? I don’t know about that, but certainly it means that the detection is increasing.”

Bedard said the broader community in Maine can help by reducing the likelihood that a child will be exposed to trauma or other adverse experiences and by supporting children who are potentially more vulnerable to exploitation, such as transgendered children.

Finkelhor at the University of New Hampshire said studies conducted by his team suggest that one in five people arrested for possession of child pornography have also committed hands-on offenses, although he acknowledged that there’s some debate over those figures. The good news, he said, is rates of hands-on child sexual abuse have declined in the U.S. for about two decades. But the crime of child pornography – often referred to as child sexual abuse materials – is often a long-lasting trauma for survivors because digital images can circulate for so long.

“More and more, though, when people get arrested and prosecuted, it raises awareness in the public that you can’t get away with it and it reminds them that these are serious offenses with serious penalties,” Finkelhor said. “And I think that information is getting out there and is likely to have some effect.”

But Finkelhor also said technology companies also have a responsibility to set up more guard rails and educational or awareness programs to prevent such incidents in the first place.