A Prosecutor for Kids
Policing the internet for predators against children might seem an insurmountaible task—but Mary Nan Huffman, a Houston-area prosecutor who’s part of the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force Program, doesn’t see it that way. ICAC encompasses sixty-one task forces across the country, including more than 3,500 federal, state, and local law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies—all of them devoted to working on the internet-related child abuse and exploitation cases that we wish did not exist—and they do the ongoing, important work of trying to prevent more from existing. As a national network, the task forces often work together on investigations that may involve a victim in one jurisdiction and a suspect in another. As Huffman—prosecutor for the Houston-Metro Task Force in Texas—explains, internet-related crimes are not contained by geography, or by time, which is part of what makes the fight against them so difficult. Below, Huffman tells us more about her work, and what we can do proactively to keep our kids safe.
A Q&A with Mary Nan Huffman
As a prosecutor, what kind of cases do you typically handle?
I prosecute a wide range of internet-related crimes committed against kids: the possession, production, and promotion of child pornography; online solicitation of a minor, child sexual assault, and sexual performance of a child (when an adult has a child perform a sexual act).
Do you solely work on Texas-based cases? How does it work legally if a case crosses state (or international borders)?
I prosecute cases at the state level, but federal prosecutors are also part of the Houston-Metro ICAC Task Force. As a state prosecutor, I mostly go by Texas State law. But the internet is not just a city problem or a state problem or a county problem—the internet goes all over the place. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is a great resource we consistently use regarding federal and state laws that apply to internet crimes against children.
For example, for a particular Texas-based case, I might need a search warrant for a company based out of California. Most companies based in the U.S. are very helpful and responsive. And companies based in the U.S. are required by law to report if child pornography is coming across their servers. A big issue is when cases involve companies that are not based in the U.S., like Kik (in Canada) and WeChat (in China). Companies outside of the U.S. don’t have to follow our laws, and are sometimes too slow to respond to search warrants—or do not respond at all.
What’s the goal of your work?
My top priorities are to reduce child sexual exploitation and prevent child victimization. My job, along with the police officers who investigate these crimes, is to catch the people who prey on children and see that justice is administered appropriately.
We also help identify children who are potentially being exploited online and make sure that they are safe. For example, we recently got a CyberTip (more on this below) that child pornography videos were being uploaded to Vine. Each video showed the same girl, and she appeared to be making and uploading the videos herself. When we see something like this come in—it might not be a criminal case, but we want to investigate it. Why is the girl uploading these videos? Is someone threatening her? We’ve had cases where a predator meets a child on an app, gets her information, finds out where she lives, details of her life, her family, and then threatens her into sending or posting nude pictures. So, this is a tip we want to investigate, get to the bottom of, and make sure the child is safe.
Another top priority: Raising awareness among children, parents, and teachers about the dangers that lurk online, and how to protect against online predators. The good news is that more people now recognize ICAC and our mission—the last time I picked a jury, more than half the jurors had heard of ICAC. We want to get the message out there that we are going to be tough on online predators. Our overarching goal is to make enough noise about it that people don’t commit these crimes.
We talk to a lot of kids—in schools, Girl Scouts groups, and so on—because kids are the ones who see the issues at the ground level. They know when sexting is happening in school or when bullying is occurring online.
This is why the CyberTipline—which children can call for help—is so important. CyberTipline is an initiative of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that functions in partnership with other organizations, like the FBI, U.S. Department of Justice, ICAC, plus various state and local law enforcement agencies. CyberTipLine collects reports of suspected online abuse from individuals as well as Electronic Service Providers, which are then distributed to relevant law enforcement agencies, largely based on the location of the IP address. (In the U.S., Electronic Service Providers are required to report several categories of child exploitation and online abuse. Electronic Service Providers not based in the U.S. rarely—if ever—provide CyberTips.)
We want kids to know that if something inappropriate is happening and they don’t feel comfortable talking to an adult about it, they can call the CyberTipline. I tell kids that even if they themselves ever do something that they are worried about, embarrassed of, not proud of—say they took a naked photo of themselves—and they don’t feel they can speak to an adult about it, call the CyberTipline (1.800.843.5678).
Any time we can get a child out of a bad situation, it is a great accomplishment—or, even better, if we can prevent a future crime from occurring.
Do you see internet crimes continuing to rise? Have there been any patterns or notable changes in recent years?
Internet crimes are still on the rise. While we have seen a decline in child abductions (strangers kidnapping children off the street), we now see children voluntarily leave their homes to meet predators. Child abductions leave criminals more vulnerable and exposed—there might be witnesses, the child might scream, the criminal has to act fast, and so on. Via the internet, predators can come right into your home, talk to your children for days, weeks, or months, and then get your child to voluntarily walk out the door.
We have also seen an increase in self-produced, self-made, child sexual abuse images as phones and devices capable of taking pictures have become more affordable, and more children have access to them.
One thing that remains the same: Technology and the internet are always changing. Keeping up with all the technology is a daunting task, but the investigators who work on these cases do not view it that way. Every day, they find new websites, new apps, and new tactics that make a dent in the problem. They want to protect minors; they know that if there is a site or an app out there that kids are using, then so too are the people who prey upon them.
Can you tell us a bit about the proactive investigations that you are involved in?
Again, if there is an app or a website that kids are on, predators will be on there too. Our task force brings together investigators from different law enforcement agencies that work with police officers dedicated to fighting the online sexual exploitation of children. As mentioned earlier, officers investigate leads from CyberTipLine—we work a lot of CyberTip cases. Nationally, the number of CyberTip reports being made is increasing—people are learning about it, and sharing important information. In 2013, about 500,000 reports were made. In 2014, this doubled to over a million reports.
Another part of these officers’ jobs is pretending to be children online, which we consider the first line of defense in protecting our kids. We hope that if there is a predator out there looking to engage in sexual contact with a minor, that the predator will run into one of our officers instead of a real child. We have had great success proactively investigating these types of cases.
One thing I don’t think parents realize is how much work takes place behind the scenes—or, in the case of internet crimes “behind the screens.” Whether our officers are pretending to be children on the internet or infiltrating child pornography rings, they fight tirelessly for children they most likely will never know, and are making a difference in lives they will never meet. I’m so proud that every day I get to work with these dedicated officers.
Can you tell us a bit about one of these cases?
There was a guy who thought he was chatting with a thirteen-year-old on an app, and when he showed up to meet her, there was actually an undercover officer waiting. The suspect’s phone was taken and we went through it to look for victims, and to make sure no other kids were being hurt. It turned out that this guy had been talking to girls from all over the world.
We worked for a few years to identify one of the girls. (It was particularly hard to identify people on this app. Many of the chat apps don’t require a cell phone number or email to sign up—you just need Wifi.) When we found this girl—a teacher identified her photo—she was sixteen years old. She was thinking about and preparing for college. She said she was the child in the picture. I don’t think she ever thought that police officers would be looking at that photo of her. She sent it in private—but, not knowing, to a forty-nine-year-old man.
We asked her if she ever met the man in person. She said no—that they were going to meet but then he disappeared and they stopped talking. They stopped talking the day we took him into custody. If she had met him, she would have been sexually abused.
I emailed and called the mom to keep her updated on the man—who ended up taking a plea and being sentenced to ten years in prison—but I never heard back from the mother. Then, randomly, I was visiting a local house with my mother-in-law, who is a realtor, and this family was there. I recognized the girl. The mom was standing there. I don’t think she had ever opened my email. These things can be so hard on the whole family. When I told her then that the man had been sentenced to ten years in prison, she fell to the ground, crying.
What do you recommend that parents do proactively to keep their children safe?
Keep your kids close. Tell your kids not to talk to strangers. When I give presentations to parents, I ask them: Who here would let your child talk to any random adult at the mall? Of course, most parents would not. So why would let your child talk to strangers online?
I tell parents that people really have not changed; it is the tools that people use that have changed. There are still good people out there, there are bad people, there are parents, children, and there are people who prey on children. The internet is not a bad thing for children—it has many great purposes (like doing research for school or talking to family members who live far away), but it is what people do with the technology that can be bad.
I also tell parents: You have to be a parent. Kids do not get privacy. Parents should be monitoring their kids’ devices. They should know who their friends are online, know what kind of information they are putting out about themselves, and help them with privacy settings. You have to tell them over and over again about the dangers online. When we taught our kids the ABCs we did not sing the song once. We sang that song ten thousand times and then one day they sang it on their own.
I tell kids that if they know someone in real life and he or she is a good person, then you can be friends with him/her online. But if you do not know someone in real life there is no reason to know that person online. I tell kids that when predators are online they are not using a picture of a fifty-year-old man. They have the profile picture of a good-looking, fifteen-year-old boy taking a selfie.
Internet crimes are crimes that have no shelf life—they last forever. As a kid taking a picture, it can be hard to realize in the moment that the picture will last forever. Looking at it another way: As an adult, you might feel removed from an image of child pornography. But those images are real, they are of real people, and they will last forever. Our hope is that children who are victims of internet crimes will grow up and live great lives. But the criminal images and videos never go away, and they can be haunting.
In the wake of a crime, what resources exist for victims and their families?
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children is a helpful resource. The Texas Center for the Missing is a good source of internet safety tips that parents can use to ensure that their children aren’t vulnerable to becoming victims of another crime.