Online images linger long after sex abuse, speaker tells Dallas’ Crimes Against Children Conference
“Photos of sexually abused children are “digital crime scenes,” developmental and forensic pediatrician Sharon Cooper says — with small details that can serve as clues.”
Dallas, TX – Dr. Sharon Cooper is familiar with the permanence of the digital world. She’s spent almost two decades tracking down predators who circulate sexually abusive images of children online, only to see those images continue to thrive long after the predator is caught and the victim is rescued.
Cooper, a developmental and forensic pediatrician from North Carolina, who contracts with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, spoke at a session on online abusive images at the annual Crimes Against Children Conference in downtown Dallas on Monday.
An estimated 100 million sexually abusive images of children circulate on the Internet, Cooper said — “but that’s a severe underestimate.”
The 27th annual Crimes Against Children conference, sponsored by the Dallas Police Department and the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center, draws about 3,900 criminal justice professionals, and covers just about any topic relating to the investigation of child abuse.
This year’s event features numerous sessions dedicated to cybercrime and to online strategies criminal justice professionals can use to track down perpetrators or victims.
She considers images of sexually abused children to be “digital crime scenes.” Cooper said evidence ranging from a word printed on a T-shirt to chipped nail polish can indicate where a victim is and how long they’ve been abused, respectively.
She said the publication of child sexual abuse images adds “insult to the injury” after the child has already been abused. Once a sexually explicit image of a child begins to circulate, it’s almost certain to remain in the digital world for decades, if not forever.
The Internet, Cooper said, takes the offense beyond the original sexual crime.
“These are not just pictures,” she said.
The Dallas Police Department investigates about 2,500 cases of online child sex abuse each year, a number that continues to rise, said Lt. A.F. Diorio.
Diorio, commander of DPD’s Crimes Against Children Unit, was among those who attended the conference Monday. He sees the number of sessions devoted to online sexual exploitation increase every year — a response to a digital world that has rapidly become more interactive.
“Everybody’s got a device these days capable of transmitting images,” he said. “All that stuff, we have to keep pace with.”
Diorio said the ability to quickly circulate photos and videos has taken trafficking crimes from street corners to the Web classifieds and the dark corners of social networks.
“We have to have a very strong presence and aggressive enforcement on the Internet just like we do on public streets,” Diorio said.
Part of that aggressive enforcement relies on the speedy and thorough investigation of all tips Dallas police receive from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, he said.
Before the Internet made photos and videos more shareable, images of child abuse were limited to contraband magazines. Cooper said that those items were easier to control, that law enforcement believed they had a handle on preventing their widespread distribution.
“Just before the Internet, it was really felt that we had eradicated child abuse stills,” she said. “But then the Internet came out, and we started seeing videos.”
Even then, she said, Internet predators of the late 1990s and early 2000s were still somewhat conspicuous, lurking in chat rooms.
Now, “it’s much easier” for them to engage in cyberstalking, as well as more covert methods of enticement, Cooper said.
Yet more recently, child abuse has been used to extort and intimidate its victims into silence, and not strictly for commercial purposes, Cooper said. The images are used for “revenge porn” or “sextortion.”
There’s no definitive way to permanently delete an abusive image circulating online. Search engines and Internet providers have made efforts to flag and remove such images, but that doesn’t guarantee the image won’t be shared by other means.
“But that’s for the future,” Cooper said. “Our bigger goal is to stop the images from existing in the first place.”