Monday, June 18, 2018
Public safety

John Romano: Too many stories of children in danger

One after another, the unsettling headlines are starting to blur together.

The child pornography case gives way to the underage sex sting, which is followed by another teacher being charged with having sexual rendezvous with a student.

Depending on your point of view, recent weeks have either been triumphant for law enforcement officials working crimes against children, or a frightening reminder of the number of predators hiding in plain sight.

"It's really kind of amazing,'' said St. Petersburg police Assistant Chief David DeKay. "Just look at the sting in Manatee County last month. They were picking off high school teachers and church leaders.

"That's what's really scary.''

The Manatee County case resulted in 35 arrests of men who thought they had arranged online dates for sex with minors. Along with the teacher and church choir member was a nursing assistant and a former Department of Defense official.

Not long before that, 14 men were arrested in another sting in Plant City.

That doesn't include the man who thought he had made an arrangement with a woman in Tampa to have sex with her 10-year-old daughter, or the St. Petersburg man charged Friday after arriving for a meeting with a detective posing online as a 14-year-old.

It's difficult to pinpoint whether there has been an upswing in the number of predators on the Internet, or if police are simply getting better at forcing violators into the open.

The number of online cases jumped dramatically a decade ago, but that was at a time when computer usage and social media was still a growing phenomenon.

"We haven't done a comprehensive look at the number of offenders since 2009, but I wouldn't say there has been a spike in activity,'' said Janis Wolak, a research scientist at the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center. "The reality is most sex crimes are not perpetrated by someone a child meets on the Internet.

"What parents need to do is talk more broadly to their children about sexual advances. It doesn't matter if it's someone they don't know on the Internet or someone they do know from down the street. The red flag is any conversation that steers into sexual territory, no matter who it is.''

If parents have learned to be more attentive to Internet usage in the home, offenders also have become more wary of law enforcement officials online.

It's become a cat-and-mouse game of detectives pretending to be bored adolescents visiting popular teen websites, but without coming across as obvious targets.

"There's a certain skill set involved,'' said DeKay. "You have to be socially adept in the ways of teenagers.''

The real question is how many predators are still hiding online. If dozens are being arrested on a fairly regular basis when showing up for supposed dates with teens, how many are successfully arranging meetings every day?

One FBI study estimated a half-million pedophiles are online every day.

"As you might expect, that child predator is wary of being caught and so we have to work around those predicaments,'' said DeKay. "But their overriding urge is often so strong, they're willing to take that chance.

"It's crazy what these guys are showing up at people's houses expecting to find.''

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