by Erin Beck
As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, West Virginians have reported a drastic increase in cases of child sexual abuse involving the Internet.
West Virginians reported about 450 more cases of online child sexual exploitation to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2021 than in 2020, and about 650 more cases than 2019.
In 2019, parents, guardians, police, and Internet companies, such as Facebook, reported 1,139 tips to the center, according to Sgt. James Kozik, director of the West Virginia State Police Crimes Against Children Unit. In 2020, that number increased to 1,333 tips. In 2021, they reported 1,791 tips. That’s about a 50 percent increase from 2019, before the pandemic, to 2021.
People who want to sexually abuse children may use the Internet in several ways.
They may condition kids to trust them over time, a practice called “grooming,” then manipulate the child into sending a photo or meeting them in person. They may pretend to be another child. They may make threats.
They may also take or share photos or videos of children being sexually abused or explicit images of children.
Lisa Zappia, a licensed counselor and CEO of Prestera mental health center, noted that as kids spent more time isolated, families have dealt with more stress and conflict.
Meanwhile, extracurriculars, classes and other outside-the-home activities slowed or were canceled, so kids have seen friends and loved ones less often.
“If you’ve got somebody reaching out to them who’s interested in them, professing to be a supportive person, acting like they care, acting like they’re willing to help them with stuff, then they’re going to engage in conversations because they’re young, and they think this person is wanting to be helpful… So they look for that connection,” Zappia said.
Zappia, who worked to help prevent sex offenders from re-offending in a previous job, said like other people, sex offenders exhibit some of their worst behaviors when they’re under stress.
Sgt. Kozik said perpetrators became more aggressive during the pandemic, demanding in-person meetings or images of particular acts.
“And there is an impression amongst offenders that during the pandemic, that nobody was watching,” he said. “And my belief is that many times that was correct.”
Sgt. Kozik said the vast majority of the tips reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children involve the possession, manufacture and distribution of child sexual abuse materials. That includes explicit photos and videos of kids, as well as photos and videos of kids experiencing sexual abuse.
Since a photo or video can be shared multiple times, the number of reports is unlikely to be the same as the number of victims. But the number of reports does show the problem has dramatically escalated.
The second most common type of report involved a perpetrator using the internet with the intent to commit a sexual offense or abduction.
Isolation, increased Internet time made kids vulnerable
The West Virginia Child Advocacy Network is a group of centers throughout the state that conduct interviews of abused children for police investigations and link those kids with services like counseling.
Margot Evick, director of the Randolph-Tucker Children’s Advocacy Center, said in 2020, two kids told interviewers at her center they had been solicited for photos. In 2021, there were nine.
“We were all allowing our children to be online more because they were doing schoolwork,” she said. “But also because we were all home, isolated. And it was the only way they could connect with their peers again.”
Maureen Runyon, coordinator of the Child Advocacy Center at Women and Children’s Hospital in Charleston, said that even before the pandemic, online solicitation of children was shockingly common. Advocates would interview kids about an in-person incident, and find kids had been asked to send private photos online dozens of times, often through the chat function of online games.
“In their mind, this stuff is not a big deal, because it happens all the time,” she said.
According to Kate Flack, CEO of the West Virginia Child Advocacy Network, 19 kids were victims of “commercial sexual exploitation,” which refers to sex trafficking, during the 2020-2021 fiscal year, up from 13 the prior year. While many people think of strangers when they hear the term sex trafficking, parents and other people that kids know can also be traffickers.
Sex trafficking is federally defined as: “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.”
And in 2018-2019, 38 kids told child advocacy centers they’d been depicted in explicit images or videos, according to Flack. By the 2019-2020 fiscal year, that number increased to 44. For the 2020-2021 year, the number increased to 69.
Erin Merryn’s Law
COVID-19 contributed to an increase in the number of online child sexual exploitation cases in West Virginia. But even before the pandemic, the state was failing to address the risk.
Erin Merryn’s Law, which created a task force to study the issue of child sexual abuse, passed the West Virginia Legislature in 2015. Following recommendations by that task force to lawmakers, the Legislature passed a bill in 2018 stating that beginning in 2019, children in grades K-12 “shall receive body age-appropriate safety information at least once per academic school year, with a preference for four times per academic year.” They also required new training for teachers.
The goal was to prevent sexual abuse. And child advocates say those presentations also increase reporting of child sexual abuse after it occurs, because kids may disclose abuse at the events.
But even prior to the pandemic, Robert Peters, founder of the SHIELD taskforce, worried the law wasn’t being implemented statewide. Counties, not the state, are primarily responsible for implementation.
That means whether children participated largely depended on where they lived. It also means the state doesn’t keep a database of whether schools are abiding by the law, so it’s unclear how many schools have implemented it.
The SHIELD Task Force is a statewide coalition working to end child abuse. Peters said they offer Erin’s Law training to schools.
His group did develop a series of videos, and he said they were able to conduct some assemblies since schools opened back up. Each time, kids disclosed abuse.
“The sliver of hope that I have is that on the SHIELD taskforce side, we have received more inquiries and interests in prevention education… So that’s a sign for hope,” he said. “But also, it’s a sign that in many locations, it hasn’t been implemented during perhaps the most historically important period for it to be implemented.”
No in-person assemblies happened while schools were closed, and cancellations and quarantines since then have made those presentations harder to conduct.
Evick said her center sent prevention packets home with kids, but that it wasn’t the same as conducting in-person events, where kids would be more likely to build a connection and feel comfortable disclosing to the presenter.
Sgt. Kozik also said police have been forced to conduct fewer preventive operations – meaning they pretend to be potential victims to catch predators. That’s in part because in-person contact slowed, and in part because of ongoing problems with manpower, according to Kozik. They’ve also been busy catching up on tips.
Kozik said the unit has to focus on “the worst of the worst first.”
“And if there’s not been victimization in West Virginia, say, someone just uploaded a picture that’s going to kind of fall to the bottom of the list. And we’re going to try and eventually get to it.”
Major James Findley, director of professional standards for the West Virginia State Police, said WV Code 15-2-15 requires the Crimes Against Children Unit to maintain a director and five members, and there weren’t any current plans to add additional members. (The law says six officers is “the minimum.”)
Sgt. Kozik hoped to see more awareness events as schools opened back up this fall. Police were able to conduct some events.
“Ramp up the community outreach and educate the kids, and keep that education going as kids get to be school age,” he said. “And then whenever disaster like this strikes, at least you have reached out to the kids before it happened.”
Increase coincides with mental health crisis
Runyon, of the Charleston CAC, said they struggle to link kids with therapists in more rural surrounding counties, and some parents say they just want kids to forget.
But she knows kids won’t forget. Instead, therapists can help kids identify triggers, or things that remind them of the event and make them feel unsafe. They help kids learn how to respond when faced with those triggers and “regain some control over themselves and their emotional health,” Runyon said.
She uses an analogy with families that visit her CAC: life is like a book. Maybe there’s a chapter about elementary school, or family vacations. And maybe there are chapters about traumatic events like the death of a parent or child sexual abuse. She tells kids what they disclose at the CAC may only represent one chapter.
“And it would be great if we could just rip that chapter out, go in the fire and burn it and never think about it again. But we can’t. It doesn’t work that way. But that chapter doesn’t have to define all of the chapters yet to come.”
Yet even if families are receptive to counseling, the state lacks enough child therapists.
West Virginia CACs are more likely to refer kids to counseling than the rest of the nation – 41 percent of new cases were referred, compared to 30 percent nationwide, according to the 2020-2021 Child Advocacy Network report.
But West Virginia kids were less likely to actually enter counseling – 25 percent of new referrals began counseling, compared to 29 percent nationwide.
Flack said rural families lack transportation, and some don’t have Internet connectivity for telehealth appointments.
“In part, it’s we don’t have enough money to pay them,” she added.
At Just for Kids CAC in Beckley, Executive Director Scott Miller said he’s seen parents become more willing to seek the mental health treatment their kids need over the last decade. But some parents still brush off the idea, saying “my kid’s not crazy.”
But when he does prevention education events, an adult always comes up to him afterward.
“They’re just crying when they hear about the work that we do, because they wish they had been there for them,” he said.
Preventing the problem
While parents, guardians, and other caring adults can’t eliminate all risk, Runyon noted that there are ways parents and guardians can decrease the likelihood their kids will be targeted. They can block certain apps on phones, and parents can require permission before downloads.
She said she tells her kids that if they ever feel uncomfortable, they can ask her to pick them up any time, day or night. They can just say they “don’t feel good.”
“I think you have to continually ask, not wait for children to come and tell you,” she said. “You’ve got to give them permission to do these kinds of things.”
Carrie Meghan Quick-Blanco, program director for WV Free, said it’s important for kids to know they can say no. For example, they should feel comfortable saying they don’t want a hug, even if it’s from a loved one.
“It’s important to help people that have already been victims of sexual violence,” she said. “But really, actually implementing these lessons, and doing it consistently, is what’s going to change the culture.”
Parents and guardians can also demonstrate to kids that those subjects don’t have to be secretive by teaching them age-appropriate names for their anatomy.
“Offenders target children who are less comfortable talking about those topics, who display naivete, because that means they’re less likely to disclose because of shame,” said Peters, founder of the SHIELD taskforce. “And they’re less likely to be able to articulate, especially in younger ages, the specificity of what occurred.”
To Peters, “ultimately, it’s about the relationship.”
“What keeps kids safe is a loving relationship with a caring, supportive adult, where these topics relating to sex, relating to safety, are not taboo,” he said. “And the child knows that if they were in a compromising situation, they could come forward, and it wouldn’t be a punitive approach. It would be an empowering approach, and a loving response by their caregivers.”
The National Center for Missing Exploited Children’s website includes a list of things predators do to groom children, as well as things kids do that put them more at risk. Parents, guardians, police and others can make their own reports with the center here.
The Committee for Children offers free guides to talking to children about sexual abuse.
Sex Positive Families provides education and resources that “help families raise sexually healthy children using a shame-free, comprehensive, and pleasure-positive approach.”
NPR spoke to researchers, advocates and sex educators on how to talk to teens about sex, bodies and relationships.
The ICAC website also includes more resources.
The Zero Abuse Project is a 501(c)(3) organization committed to the elimination of child sexual abuse.