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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Wasserman Schultz: Save funding to hunt online child sex predators

29

March

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz visited Tallahassee on Tuesday for the first time since leaving the Florida Legislature to draw attention to a proposed cut in Gov. Rick Scott's budget.

The governor's plan calls for less funding for Florida's CyberCrime unit, tasked with tracking online child pornography traffickers and others on the Internet who prey on children. Since it was created several years ago, the unit has made more than 250 arrests. Scott's budget would cut the unit's staff from 34 to 15 -- dropping the number of investigators from 15 to six.

"This is an epidemic. It is a cancer in our country," Wasserman Schultz said of online child exploitation.

Wasserman Schultz, a Broward Democrat, was joined in an emotional news conference in the Senate press room with Mark Lunsford and Diena Thompson, whose children were murdered by child predators in to separate, high-profile cases.

Thompson's daughter Somer was abducted in Orange Park and killed in 2009.

"My child was still unable to be saved" despite the CyberCrime's efforts unit, a tearful Thompson said, calling for more investigators instead of fewer. "It's high time for us to send a message loud and clear for all who plan to harm our children."

She held up a photo of Gov. Scott during last year's gubernatorial campaign consoling her a woman . "This looks like a governor who wants to help her child," Thompson said.

Lunsford, whose daughter Jessica was abducted from their Homosassa home and murdered in 2005, said Florida has been of the forefront of pursuing children predators online. Downsizing the unit would be a step backward, he said.

"The predators will laugh at you for the weakness that you're showing," Lunsford said. "We can't risk their safety. There has to be another way."

The parents were joined by a cast that included state Sen. Nan Rich, a Weston Democrat and Senate minority leader, and Harrell Reid, president of the Florida Sheriffs Association. Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, was scheduled to attend but did not show up to the news conference. Fasano said he wanted to be there but was tied up with budget issues.

Camille Cooper of PROTECT, the National Association to Protect Children, pointed to a map that showed 38,000 known computers in Florida the CyberCrime unit has identified as being involved in posting photos and videos online of children -- including infants and toddlers -- being sexually abused, raped and tortured.

It is unclear if the House and Senate budget plans also cut the CyberCrime unit's funding. If they do, Cooper said, that would buck other states. "The national trend is actually to increase capacity for law enforcement," she said.

--STEVE BOUSQUET AND PATRICIA MAZZEI

[Last modified: Tuesday, March 29, 2011 10:56pm]

    

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