A Click Away
CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. (KFVS) - If there’s a pre-teen or teenager in your life with a cellphone, local authorities say you need to pay attention.
They’re seeing an alarming increase in the number of young people creating and sharing nude photos and videos.
And while they may think it’s a private choice, some very public, lifelong consequences can be just a click away.
“We have cases in Poplar Bluff. We’ve got cases in....I think there’s a couple cases in Cape. I’ve got four cases in Jackson. Cases in Chaffee. Couple cases in Sikeston. A case in Perryville.”
Detective Danny Hicks discussed just some of the cases assigned to the SEMO Cyber Crimes Task Force. They are all his cases because he is a task force of one. One officer currently tracking a growing number of disturbing, locally created examples of child pornography.
“I would say probably half my cases are of self-made pornography, whether it be a pre-pubescent juvenile or even a teenage juvenile,” he said.
Hicks said these young people are recording themselves, then willingly sharing those pictures or videos or saving them on their devices.
“In relationships, we see a lot of images exchanged,” he said. “They’re normally full nude images. Sometimes videos.”
The detective’s work typically begins with a cyber tip sent to his office by Missouri’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Nearly all of them include a picture or video.
“In March of this year, we received I believe 47 cyber tip reports. That’s way above average.”
Hicks said the images he receives are typically shared through Facebook, Snapchat or YouTube.
“A lot of people are shocked when they find out these social media platforms actually can see these images that you exchange.”
Those very private images are not just seen, they are flagged and sent to law enforcement.
Hicks explained a few of his local cases.
We start with a still image of a young male.
“This case is actually out of Stoddard County,” Hicks said.
It involved a pre-teen posting a nude video of himself to YouTube.
“In this particular image, this child’s face is in the picture,” he added. “So, YouTube caught that. Of course, it was channeled to us. These types of cases, we see a lot.”
We asked Hicks if YouTube sent him that before YouTube users could have seen it, or did it get out.
“No,” he said. “This image would have gotten out.”
He moved on to a photo of a teenage girl. “This is a case I worked out of Mississippi County,” he said.
Hicks said the girl had what he described as a collection of images and videos saved on her phone, including a picture she sent through Facebook to her boyfriend.
“This case was handled through juvenile authorities. She was actually charged in the juvenile system with promoting child pornography.”
The third photo can only be described as heartbreaking.
“This image here is of a young, young girl” he explained. “I believe this is Cape County.”
The child photographed herself. She’s fully clothed but pulling down the front of her pants.
“Doesn’t seem like it’s provoked. Doesn’t have a reason by this,” he said of the photo.
Hicks said the little girl’s parents had no idea she had been taking pictures and saving them onto her phone. Its cloud-based storage system flagged the images. Fortunately, in this case, he does not believe anyone other than system employees ever saw them.
He said that young girl was just seven years old.
As disturbing as those images are, what happens next can be devastating for the young people involved and their families.
Detective Hicks said once those images are saved on a device or shared through social media, you no longer own that image. He showed us just a portion of the cellphones currently in evidence tied to child pornography cases.
It doesn’t matter if that photo or video is deleted. Forensically, he can find it.
“These phones have to be retained in evidence and later destroyed,” he said. “They cannot be returned to their owner because there’s no way to remove that completely from the device.”
And once he identifies a victim in his 15-county region, he is mandated to speak to that child and their parent or guardian.
We asked him what kind of reaction he receives when he goes to a house and tells the parent or guardian they have a pornographic image of their child.
“It’s always a shock,” he replied. “A lot of times, they’re in denial until you show them an actual picture of the face of their child.”
It’s a tough situation.
“Yes. It’s very shocking for everyone,” he said.
Once Hicks finishes that work, he takes the next legal step, depending on the age of those involved.
“If you simply possess the image of a child under the age of 18 that is in a sexual nature, then you’re in possession of child pornography,” Butler County Prosecuting Attorney Kacey Proctor said. “Period.”
Proctor handles child pornography cases when the suspect is over 18 or certified as an adult.
“This is a felony,” Proctor said. “This is something that could cause you to register as a sex offender. This is something that’s going to have lifelong consequences.”
Shonda Hill is the chief juvenile officer for Butler and Ripley Counties. She petitions the court when those involved are under 18.
“We could potentially charge who sent the image, who shared the image and anyone receiving the image for having it in their possession,” she explained.
“It doesn’t matter if the person, the victim so to speak, or the child created it with permission and gave it to you with permission,” Proctor continued. “That’s irrelevant. It’s the possession of it or the dissemination of it that makes it a crime.”
Proctor said he’s already seen proof these images do not stay private.
“We’ve seen cases where juveniles have created websites,” he said. “Sharing websites that they upload images of their girlfriends or friends or people that they’ve seen in school.”
“They don’t even think about it,” Hill said of young people on social media. “And sometimes parents don’t think about it. We need to educate our parents and our children to realize that this is serious.”
“They don’t think about the fact that that could be up to 15 years in prison. And also land them on the sex offender registry for the rest of their life,” Proctor said.
And both make it clear, a parent cannot stop a child pornography case like this from advancing.
“If I can make the case without you or your child’s cooperation I will,” Proctor said, “because possession and dissemination of child pornography is a crime that affects everybody in the community.”
“If we receive a referral, there will be some type of action on that referral,” Hill added. “A parent can’t stop that.”
Back at the Task Force office, Danny Hicks builds a case around each disturbing image sent his way. He also reports each one to a national database.
We asked him if this locally made child pornography is traveling beyond just a teen’s friends and ending up in the hands of a stranger on the other side of a screen.
“Identifying an image of a known victim that I have here locally, have yet to come across that yet,” he said.
Is it just a matter of time we asked.
“It’s just a matter of time.”
Full disclosure, we tried to find a group of teens to talk to for this story. Several school districts turned us down.
Clearly this is a tough topic, but these officials said the only way to stop these images from spreading is to make sure the young people in your life know what can happen, before that picture or video is ever taken.
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