Fighting Internet Predators
Updated: Apr 28, 2022
The Internet can sometimes seem like the Wild West for child predators—a place that largely operates outside the law. While trading in pedophile pornography is illegal, lack of adequate funding means law enforcement officials are able to investigate just 2 percent of their leads. And, according to Interpol statistics, only one-half of 1 percent are ever prosecuted. "What you are going to see is going to shock you to the core, but I'm asking you to please don't turn away," Oprah says, "because this is happening in our country to our children in the United States every day." The map behind Oprah shows how quickly one pornographic image of a child being molested can spread. It starts with the large red dot from a computer in Washington, D.C. Within 24 hours, it has spread all across the United States—from coast to coast and north to south. "This is just an average day in America—24 hours," Oprah says. The demand for new videos and photos is so high that authorities report tracking increasingly brutal pornography with younger and younger victims. "For once, you and I can do something about it!" Oprah says. Find out how to write to your senators to urge them to pass legislation to fight online predators. At the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a clearinghouse for online pornographic images of children, 50 analysts screen between 100,000 and 200,000 image and video files. Working with Internet providers and the public, they help law enforcement officials keep up with the movement of these files. "[Pedophiles] take these images and trade them like baseball cards," says Christine, an analyst. "The violation that occurs within these files...it's horrific." What they see on a daily basis is so disturbing the center keeps an on-site psychologist to help analysts cope. "We're seeing sexual abuse including oral penetration, vaginal, anal penetration," says Michelle, another analyst. "We see children with dog collars on their necks. Kids with plastic bags over their heads. Foreign object insertion with these children."
One particularly disturbing new trend involves predators engaging in live video chats that include on-demand child molestation and rape. This has caught the attention of the cybercrimes division of the Department of Homeland Security, which combats child exploitation. By posing as pedophiles, agents like Claude Davenport have learned how these operations work. "They will get together, discuss activities that they would like to see performed and actually perform it on their own children," he says. "We've had cases where infants have been molested on live feed. When the violators are caught, their reason for using such a young child is because the child can't articulate the violation that they've received." Authorities have even discovered videos and manuals created by pedophiles that give instructions on how to molest and rape children just months old and how to get away with the crime. Some videos even use well-known cartoon characters to desensitize the children to rape.
For the past seven years, Flint Waters, a father of four, has devoted his life to patrolling the Internet to take down child predators as commander of the Wyoming Internet Sex Crimes Against Children Task Force. Four years ago, he and two other men—Bill Wiltse of the Salem, Oregon, police department; and Robert Leazenby of the Wyoming attorney general's office—developed a revolutionary software program that tracks computers trading pornographic images and videos of children. The program runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week and can pinpoint the specific location of offenders' computers. His investigations have led to more than 100 arrests, and more than 30 children have been saved. Although the program is highly effective, Flint says there are simply not enough resources available to law enforcement officials to help put predators away. "We're getting better at finding them, seeing who's out there," he says. "We're just overwhelmed by the numbers." Flint says about 15,000 images are traded on a daily basis. In the past two years alone, 300,000 to 500,000 computers have sent such images in the United States—and that's only on the computers that are trackable. When predators are caught, Flint says he's the one who interviews them. "They'll look you in the eye. They'll describe it. They'll get excited about their interest. They'll talk about how society just hasn't caught up and this is what they should be doing," he says. "I've arrested them, have them get out on bond and on the way home pick up another computer and get back online to find the material. ... They don't stop." Flint says those who work on Internet crimes sometimes feel like they're at sea and have to decide which children get to escape in the rescue boat. "I don't mean it to sound like it's hard for law enforcement—its gut wrenching," he says. "But those kids who are waiting for us—that's who it's hard for. That's who we need to be able to try and reach out to."
Danger isn't just lurking with strangers or at the playground—many children are abused by people they know and trust. According to law enforcement research, almost three out of four children who are sexually abused know their offenders—and 35 percent of the time the abuser is the child's own parent. "In some of those cases, somewhere, mom is asleep in that house and has no idea that this guy's doing this," Flint says. "Some of these guys are brilliant at the techniques they go through to hide what they're doing." Studies say that 30 to 40 percent of people who view images of child abuse online are also molesters. "There's a huge number of these guys that when we catch them, they're using it to normalize their behavior, to normalize what they're already doing with the child that's in their care," he says. "So they act out on their granddaughter or their grandson. They go through this guilt cycle. They get the videos. They see that everybody else is doing it, and they continue to act." Friends and neighbors say Roy Pompa seemed like a typical family man. He always attended his kids' games, holiday parties and neighborhood picnics—but police say the husband and father of two was doing the unthinkable. Pompa laced his daughter's friends' drinks with drugs and sexually molested them while they were sleeping, videotaping the crimes. In 2006, Flint's software flagged Pompa's computer for trading almost 900 child pornography images in one month. When Ohio authorities raided Pompa's home, they found nearly 3,000 pornographic images and 400 videos of children. Police identified at least eight of his victims ranging in age from 6 to 14 who were molested between 2002 and 2005. In May 2007, Pompa was convicted of rape and kidnapping and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Victims Amanda, Jasmine and Ally say Pompa used to be a father figure to them. "He was always there. He watched after us. He would sometimes run relay races in the front yard," says Jasmine, who was 12 or 13 at the time of the attacks. "He was like another father to me, and he was just such a sweet person to us that we never thought anything about anything like that." Ally, who was 14, says she doesn't remember being molested, but Jasmine says she remembers scenes. "I would wake up a little groggy thinking I was dreaming or, you know, I thought I felt something. I told the girls the next morning, and they were, like, 'Oh, it might have been the cat, you know, just touching you,'" she says. "I would just think, 'Oh, it's just me imagining,' because he was always such a touchy-feely kind of person." If the girls woke to find Pompa in the room, they say he would claim to be checking on them. Amanda, who was 11 when the incidents started, says she can be a heavy sleeper, but she would wake up constantly while staying at Pompa's house. "He'd just be standing in the doorway or standing in the corner of the room, and it was kind of just not right," she says. "It felt very creepy and just awkward and uncomfortable." The girls say Pompa was also insistent on giving them drinks. Ally says he always had a drink ready for them at bedtime. One night, Amanda says she couldn't sleep, and Pompa told her that drinking water would help her. "I didn't understand why water was going to make me fall asleep," she says. "So I dumped it out behind the bed." One night at Pompa's house, Jasmine says she wanted to go home because she didn't feel well. "He said, 'No, you need to drink your iced tea and you'll feel better,'" she says. "I just wanted to get into my own house because I was scared." After telling Pompa she got sick in the bathroom, Jasmine ran home and told her grandmother that something was wrong. "He didn't want me to go home. And I didn't know what to do because I was so young and it was just so confusing to me."
When the girls and their parents found out the neighbor they trusted was a child molester, Amanda's mother, Kelly, says she was in total shock. "I remember just dropping to the floor on my knees," she says. Although Amanda was also in disbelief at first, she says her emotions soon turned to anger. "I was just angry at the world, depressed and in total disarray." When Jasmine learned about the videos, she says she broke down and feared her sisters could be on the tapes as well. "I didn't know how to handle anything anymore," she says. "I didn't think this could actually happen, because they told us throughout the years, 'Watch out for people like this.' It never occurred to me that he could have done something like that." Ally's father, Tom, says he never would have suspected the man who sat next to him at his daughter's basketball games, volleyball games and other school functions could be a child molester. When Pompa went on trial, Tom says he went to court every day. "I told my daughter, Alice, that I was going to be there and would sit there in that courtroom and make sure that he didn't hurt anybody anymore," he says. "But these girls are so strong, they sat in that courtroom and they looked him right in the eye and stared him down. They got their power back."
Flint says time and time again he sees child predators grooming children and their parents to trust them. Jasmine's mother, Vanessa, never thought she had a reason to suspect her next-door neighbor, a close family friend. "When we said don't leave the yard, we meant don't leave our yard or the Pompas' yard. It was an open-door policy," she says. "They were family." Now, Vanessa realizes the importance of making sure a close relationship never masks a dangerous situation. "I think parents sometimes have to move outside of their comfort zone," she says. "If your child comes to you and tells you, 'I'm uncomfortable with the way this person's looking at me or the comments this person's making to me'—no matter how entwined you are with their lives, if they're family or they're friends that you feel as family—you need to remove your child from that situation." Jasmine has a message for kids who feel that something isn't right but don't know what to do. "If you think something is wrong, go find someone. Tell someone," she says. "If they don't believe you, if you have to, tell a police officer, anybody you can trust. Because if you hold it inside, it just kills you. It breaks you down."
If you are enraged, disgusted and fed up with child predators slipping through the cracks, there is something you can do right now. Camille Cooper works with PROTECT, a group working to pass better laws to build protection for children, and says there is an important bill going before the Senate this month. Senate Bill 1738, the PROTECT Our Children Act, will provide valuable funding for child protection task forces. "If you don't put the money behind law enforcement and fund them and have more cops that are dedicated to going after these guys and protecting our children, we won't rescue these children," Camille says. Click here to find more information on how to contact your senators and urge them to vote yes on Senate Bill 1738. Camille stresses that it is important to contact your senators immediately and put pressure on the Senate before Congress recesses on September 26. "It passed the U.S. House almost unanimously. We have to get it out of the Senate. We need to go rescue these children." "This is not about politics," Oprah says. "It's about our children. It's a bipartisan bill supported by both Republicans and Democrats. I believe that it really is up to us to tell the Senate not to go home until you pass that bill." Great news! Nearly a half-million of you made your voices heard...and it worked! Read more about the passage of the PROTECT Our Children Act.
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