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Child sex abuse: Operation Sunflower highlights new efforts to get predators

Some 245 people accused of exploiting and abusing children have been arrested, US officials announced this week. Operation Sunflower also removed 44 victims from homes where their abusers also lived.

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Ms. Bennett says that Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the unit within ICE pursuing online predators, is now focusing on “victim-centered investigations,” in which the agency tries to track the identities of the victims first instead of predators. Each time an agent uncovers evidence, it is sent to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a partner since last year, to see if it matches similar images from that database.

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HSI also relies on advanced software to examine minute details of photos and videos, and it trains agents to understand the shifting behavior of predators.

“As technology gets better ... the bad guys are getting better in using technology to hide themselves. We have to be one step ahead,” says Bennett.

With each arrest, there can be setbacks. For example, the Los Angeles woman arrested, Letha Mae Montemayor, allegedly conducted activities with another adult who remains on the loose. Ms. Montemayor was linked to the photos through her unique tattoos that were registered into a database and were eventually identified by a tipster. The second adult – identified on his federal arrest warrant as “John Doe” – has evaded capture so far because he inserted a black dot over the images of his face, ICE says.

The proliferation of portable media – smart phones, tablets, laptops, as well as the household PC – is making it easier for predators to find, approach, and eventually lure children, says Chuck Williams, director of the Center for the Prevention of School-Aged Violence at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

“These predators are extremely savvy in that they understand the culture of young people. Then they exploit the fact that adults are not anywhere near as vigilant in supervising the behavior as it relates to our young people,” he says. “Which is why they prey on them through these various avenues – they are not policed at all.”

While software exists to allow parents to monitor every message, image, or online posting made on the devices of their children, many parents tend not to pursue such safety measures, Mr. Williams says.

“Parents need to be educated to do more. The front line is the home,” he says.

Bennett agrees: “These kinds of cases remind us we need to have conversations as educators and parents that ask children, ‘When you go online on Facebook, how do you know that person who says he’s Johnny and he’s a 14-year-old is [being honest]?’ ”

ICE is one of several agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, that can pursue federal charges involving the possession, distribution, or production of child pornography. “There is so much of this crime that there is sadly enough casework,” says Bennett.

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