Authorities step up efforts to fight online child exploitation
SPRINGFIELD -- State Attorney General Kwame Raoul joined local and federal prosecutors Monday to announce new efforts to combat a rise in online child exploitation in Illinois.
The efforts include greater outreach and education for parents and teachers, and a new mobile computer forensics unit that will be deployed throughout the state, he said.
"The pandemic has wreaked havoc on all of our lives, shuttering schools and businesses and isolating us and our children," Raoul said at a news conference outside his office in Springfield. "Children have been affected in unprecedented ways. During this time in particular of separation from their peers, they've turned to technology for schooling, for connecting with old and new friends and alleviating the boredom and the social isolation this crisis has forced upon them. And child predators are there to try to take advantage of this."
The efforts are being coordinated through the state's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, a federally funded project within the attorney general's office that includes state, federal and local law enforcement agencies.
It receives tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, investigates child sexual exploitation crimes, trains law enforcement agencies, and provides online safety education to children and adults. The task force operates in all Illinois counties except Cook County, which has its own task force.
In 2018, Raoul said, the attorney general's office managed more than 3,300 cyber tips. That increased to 4,300 in 2019 and to 5,100 in 2020. This year, that number is expected to grow 23%, in part due to increased reporting and awareness by social media and apps.
"The threat is out there, and with our children's increase in use of the internet for education, entertainment and social interaction, it is growing," he said. "Police and prosecutors alone cannot stem the tide of rising sexual images of children on the internet. We all have a role to play."
Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly said the ICAC Task Force has dramatically increased the state's ability to arrest and prosecute those who prey on children online.
In 2018, the year before the task force began, ISP investigated only nine leads of internet crimes against children and made one arrest. In the first year of the initiative, that increased to 71 leads and 19 arrests, and in 2020, the agency pursued 99 leads and made 24 arrests.
"These are brutally difficult images to investigate," Kelly said. "The psychological and mental toll on these special agents and criminal investigators cannot be overestimated. It's an incredibly challenging burden to have to review hundreds upon hundreds of these deeply disturbing acts, and certainly weighs heavily on their soul. But to stop these crimes, someone has to do it."
To help educate adults about how to identify cyber threats to their children, Raoul said the task force will teach about the apps children and teens might be using, how to help youth navigate aggressive online behavior, and how to identify signs that a child or student might have been the victim of online child solicitation.
The series will begin Oct. 7, and webinars will take place at 6:30 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month. People interested in participating can email firstname.lastname@example.org to register.
To report suspected online child sexual exploitation, contact local law enforcement or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children CyberTipline at (800) 843-5678.