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The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of life across the globe. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) says child safety has also been affected.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says its work has not stopped during the pandemic.

COVID-19 has presented challenges and opportunities in the fight against child sexual exploitation. In the first quarter of 2020, NCMEC became aware of predators openly discussing the pandemic as an opportunity to entice unsupervised children into producing sexually explicit material.  At the same time, we experienced an explosion in reporting to our CyberTipline from both the public and electronic service providers, all while transitioning to a telework environment. I couldn’t be more proud of the staff at NCMEC for demonstrating their ability to adapt and respond during this time while always maintaining their commitment to the children we serve.  Our teams used the unique challenge that COVID-19 presented and focused on the opportunity to creatively improve workflows, both operational and technical, identify new methods to assist in removing online child sexual abuse material and support the rescue of children from sexually abusive situations.

John Shehan, vice president of NCMEC’s Exploited Children Division.

In the first half of the year, the organization has seen nearly double the number of online enticement reports and CyberTipline reports than the same time period in 2019.

With children and adults spending more time online due to virtual learning and increased working from home, the center says there are more opportunities for children to be exploited online. The center says in the first quarter of the year they became aware of predators openly discussing the pandemic as an opportunity to entice unsupervised children into producing sexually explicit material.

In March, the FBI released information about the potential increased risk of child exploitation due to COVID-19. In the release, the FBI said children would have an increased online presence or put in a position putting them at an inadvertent risk due to school closures.

Now that school has restarted, but with many students returning to school virtually, the need to educate and prevent children from becoming victims of child predators is still great.

The FBI says online sexual exploitation comes in many forms.

In some cases, predators may coerce victims into providing sexually explicit images or videos of themselves, often through threats.

Other offenders may groom their victims by making casual contact online before gaining their trust and introducing sexual conversation increasing over time. The FBI says this activity may result in maintaining an online relationship including sexual conversation and illicit images or eventually meeting in-person.

The FBI says many children hesitate to come forward to report that they have been victimized by predators out of embarrassment. That is why parents and guardians should be on the lookout for any changes in behavior such:

  • an increase in nightmares
  • withdrawn behavior
  • angry outbursts
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • not wanting to be left alone with an individual
  • sexual knowledge.
missing kids graph

The NCMEC is also dealing with missing children cases amid the pandemic. While the center is not necessarily seeing a direct correlation between COVID-19 and an uptick in missing child cases, they have received reports where the pandemic and its effects have played a significant role in 273 missing child cases.

“We have assisted with cases where children have run away out of frustration with quarantine restrictions and cases where parents with visitation rights have not returned their children due to COVID-19 concerns,” said John E. Bischoff, vice president of NCMEC’s Missing Children Division. “The reasons for disappearing may look different, but our commitment to bringing children home safe is the same.”

Children who run away or become homeless can become victims to predators such as Artavius Horne, a 36-year-old Philadelphia man who was sentenced to 45 years for sex trafficking children in northeast Philadelphia.

Three victims in Horne’s case, one as young as 13 years old, say he recruited them while they were homeless and struggling with substance abuse. In turn, Horne created internet advertisements for them and transported them across state lines to New Jersey, New York, Washington D.C. and Maryland for commercial sex acts.

“Artavius Horne made his living by sexually exploiting children, advertising underage girls for sex with strangers,” said Michael J. Driscoll, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Philadelphia Division. “He even transported them to other cities and states, determined to keep the money coming in at their expense.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCMEC says buyers have become reluctant to meet in-person to engage in commercial sex. That is why they say some child traffickers are offering options for subscription-based services for the buyers to pay for access to online images and videos of the child.

These graphic images are what U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations section pour over to help identify the children and bring their abusers to justice.

The Associated Press reports the Child Exploitation Investigations lab’s work has led to thousands of child exploitation-related arrests. ICE’s involvement in child pornography investigations dates back to when hard-copy images were traded over borders. Now it’s all online. The internet has made it so investigators around the globe can’t keep pace with the tens of millions of graphic materials available today. 

The NCMEC says people should be on the lookout for this graphic material as well. The organization says in one case, a video depicting the sexual abuse of a young child was widely shared from outraged people trying to find help for the victim. However, the people sharing the video were committing an illegal act that revictimized the child.

Anyone who comes across child sexual abuse material is asked not to repost it. Instead, they should report it to the CyberTipline.

The FBI says parents and guardians can take the following measures to help educate and prevent children from becoming victims of child predators and sexual exploitation.

Online Child Exploitation

  • Discuss Internet safety with children of all ages when they engage in online activity.
  • Review and approve games and apps before they are downloaded.
  • Make sure privacy settings are set to the strictest level possible for online gaming systems and electronic devices.
  • Monitor your children’s use of the Internet; keep electronic devices in an open, common room of the house.
  • Check your children’s profiles and what they post online.
  • Explain to your children that images posted online will be permanently on the Internet.
  • Make sure children know that anyone who asks a child to engage in sexually explicit activity online should be reported to a parent, guardian, or other trusted adult and law enforcement.
  • Remember that victims should not be afraid to tell law enforcement if they are being sexually exploited. It is not a crime for a child to send sexually explicit images to someone if they are compelled or coerced to do so.

Child Abuse Awareness

  • Teach your children about body safety and boundaries.
  • Encourage your children to have open communication with you.
  • Be mindful of who is watching your child for childcare/babysitting, playdates and overnight visits.
  • If your child discloses abuse, immediately contact local law enforcement for assistance.
  • Children experiencing hands-on abuse may exhibit withdrawn behavior, angry outbursts, anxiety, depression, not wanting to be left alone with a specific individual, non-age appropriate sexual knowledge, and an increase in nightmares.

Anyone with information about victims of child exploitation is asked to call their local law enforcement agency and FBI field office or submit a tip online. they are also asked to file a report with the NCMEC. When reporting, be as descriptive as possible, providing as much of the following as they can:

  • Name and/or user name of the subject.
  • Email addresses and phone numbers used by the subject.
  • Websites used by the subject.
  • Description of all interaction with the subject.
  • Try to keep all original documentation, emails, text messages, and logs of communication with the subject. Do not delete anything before law enforcement is able to review it.
  • Tell law enforcement everything about the online encounters—we understand it may be embarrassing for the parent or child, but providing all relevant information is necessary to find the offender, stop the abuse, and bring him/her to justice.

For more information about the FBI’s guidance on child sexual exploitation and protecting children, visit the FBI’s website. For more information about the NCMEC’s guidance on preventing sexual exploitation of children, visit the organization’s blog.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.