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Data shows upswing in child exploitation cases

Associated Press

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FILE - In this Aug. 1, 2016 file photo, children are silhouetted against the setting sun as they run on the sand at Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Homeland Security investigators who uncover child exploitation initiated more than 4,000 cases around the world in 2019. Data obtained by The Associated Press shows the investigations resulted in thousands of arrests and the identification of more than 1,000 victims. On Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019, officials plan to unveil a new center based at Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s headquarters in Washington tasked with alerting other countries when U.S. sex offenders are traveling there. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Government investigators who uncover child exploitation initiated more than 4,000 cases around the world in the 2019 budget year, resulting in thousands of arrests and the identification of more than 1,000 victims, according to data obtained by The Associated Press.

The caseloads are growing because of the ease with which offenders can post graphic images of children online.

“With the dark web on there, the content is becoming more prevalent and more horrific,” said Matt Wright, the chief for the Child Exploitation Investigations Unit at Homeland Security Investigations.

HSI is a division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement tasked with investigations, not immigration enforcement. Agents work on investigations involving money, drug smuggling or child sex trafficking.

“While we are within ICE, our primary function is as criminal investigators,” said Joanna Ip, assistant director of the agency’s cyberdivision, which oversees the unit working on combating child exploitation. “We do criminal investigations with customs and immigration authorities — anything that comes in and out of the border.”

The numbers from Oct. 1, 2018, to this past Sept. 30 are higher overall than for the previous few years, according to the data, even as HSI’s parent, the Department of Homeland Security, remains focused on immigration enforcement.

Agents and investigators initiated 4,224 child exploitation cases that resulted in 3,771 arrests and identification of 1,066 victims.

The previous two budget years each saw about 4,000 investigations but lower arrests and fewer victims identified, according to the data.

On Thursday, officials unveiled a new center based at ICE’s Washington headquarters and tasked with alerting other countries when U.S. sex offenders are traveling there. The center will include representatives from the U.S. Marshals office and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The idea stemmed from a pilot program in California in 2007. Investigators started using state sex offender registries and federal data to alert other countries when those registered traveled.

President Barack Obama signed a law in February 2016 mandating notification when registered sex offenders traveled. The notice doesn’t impede legal travel, but it does give countries a heads-up, especially in locations where child sex tourism and abuse are rampant, officials said.

ICE’s acting director, Matt Albence, said Thursday that in one instance, a notification was sent to the United Kingdom that a registered sex offender from Washington was headed there. When that individual was inspected at the border, he was discovered with child abuse imagery, and he’d been traveling to the U.K. to take part in a youth cheerleading camp as an instructor.

He was deported and his devices were confiscated, Albence said. The search turned up more than 7,000 instances of child abuse images and videos. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine years in prison in May 2019.

“If only a fraction of those notifications saved a child from having to carry the lasting scars of sexual abuse and exploitation,” then the center is worth it, Albence said.

Cheaper online storage and easier encryption tools are making for a vast increase in the number of exploitive images posted and traded online, HSI investigators said.

Wright said investigators have been able to implement new technology to help investigators sift through all the images and continually train agents and analysts.

“We’re trying to stay at the cutting edge of technology but also paying attention with what the offenders are using,” he said.

HSI agents number about 7,000, and some work at locations around the globe.