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Child porn sting snares children

4 juveniles charged this year after police track down downloads

Mary Zahn, journalsentinel.com, September 18, 2006

An investigation by Milwaukee police into Internet child pornography has yielded some surprising results: high school honor roll students from solid middle class families who are stunned when police roll up to their homes with a search warrant for their computers.

"Our focus is adults who are downloading child pornography, but we don't know who is sitting in front of the computer until we get a search warrant and find out junior is doing it," said Lt. Daniel Ruzinski, who heads the high technology investigative unit for the Milwaukee Police Department. "They (the juveniles) are pretty much in shock."

This year four juveniles, ages 14 to 16, have been charged with felony possession of child pornography in Milwaukee County as a result of the Internet investigations. Eleven adults were also arrested this year as part of the same sting operation, police said.

Adolescent boys have a natural curiosity about sex with their peers, one expert said, but prosecutors note that while teen viewers might not have the motives or dangers of adults seeking child pornography, the children in the images are real victims no matter who sees the pictures.

In once case, a 15-year-old boy entered terms such as "young girls" and "14-year-old" into his peer-to-peer program and came up with child pornography. He initially used the software to download music and then became curious about what else he could find, he told police.

"I realize now that what I did was completely stupid and wrong," the boy wrote to Children's Court Judge Carl Ashley in August. "I had no idea it was a felony."

While adults convicted of possessing child porn can face up to 25 years in prison, Ashley placed the boy on one year of probation with therapy, the same disposition as another teen charged. The other two juvenile cases are pending.

"All of the kids coming in are good students and come from good homes, but they are accessing child pornography," said Lori Kornblum, an assistant district attorney who heads the sensitive crimes unit at Children's Court. "The parents are horrified. Parents really need to know what their kids are doing on the computer."

The investigations are part of a national effort funded by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, authorities said. Their purpose is to identify people who repeatedly download and share child pornography, according to Joell Schigur, who supervises the state Internet Crimes Against Children task force.

Here is how authorities and records explain the process:

Officers working online identify the "addresses" of the computers downloading known child pornography, which is tracked by unique digital signatures on the images. When they see a pattern of multiple downloads, they seek a court order for the Internet service provider to identify the street address associated with the account. Finally, investigators obtain a search warrant for that home.

The Internet investigations have led to the arrests of 10 adults for possession of child pornography this year in Wisconsin outside Milwaukee County, state authorities said.

"This is information that is in the public domain," Schigur said. "It is like leaving three pounds of cocaine on the curb on trash day. It is legal for law enforcement officers to look within plain view to determine whether a crime is being committed."

Various published studies have found that between 50% and 76% of individuals convicted of possessing child pornography had molested a child or had attempted to do so, Schigur said.

"It makes sense to be looking at this," she said.

Parents, she said, need to monitor their children's computer usage.

"When children go to Friday night football games, they ask, 'Where are you going? Who are you going to be with?' " she said. "Yet we send our kids into the online world and we fail to ask those critical questions."

In all cases, the teens told police they downloaded the material through peer-to-peer file sharing programs, which they first loaded on to their computers to exchange music. By putting a key word into the search engine for the programs, such as "Britney Spears," one computer connects to another computer that has the music they are looking for and they are able to download it to their own computer, authorities said and records show.

For example, one 15-year-old boy told police he used a peer-to-peer computer file sharing program called LimeWire and instead of searching for music entered the search term "12-year-old." He then downloaded files involving children engaged in sex with adult men that came up on his computer screen. Police identified the unique number for the computer involved, found out that computer's owner from the Internet service provider, and then obtained a search warrant for the home address, records show.

"I just wanted to see what it was like," the boy told police. He was arrested and taken to the police station, where he was booked and released to his parents.

The district attorney's office charged him with three counts of child pornography. His case is pending.

Prosecutors said that in each of the cases the children had repeatedly downloaded multiple images involving children engaged in sex acts.

"This is not virtual pornography," Kornblum said. "These cases involve real children who have been horribly victimized. Every time someone downloads these images, it is further victimization of that child."

Part of the problem is that adolescent boys are curious about sex involving their own peers, which is normal, said Stephen Gilbertson, a psychologist and clinical program coordinator for Wraparound Milwaukee, a program for families of children with serious emotional and behavioral problems, including youth with sexual behavior problems.

"My feeling is that these kids are not sex offenders in the traditional sense and should not be thrown in with groups of children who have actually performed sexual assaults," Gilbertson said. "The one-size-fits-all approach does not work. We need to individualize how we approach these kids from a prosecution and treatment standpoint."

In the past, he said children resolved their curiosity by looking at Playboy magazine, and now with the click of a computer they can download things that "can get them in a heap of trouble."

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