AUSTIN -- Every day millions of ordinary Americans log onto the Internet and along with them, so do a growing number of predators whose targets are children.
In May, the Texas Attorney General's Cyber Crimes Unit arrested 49-year-old Richard Kaiser, accused of sexually propositioning someone whom he thought was a 13-year-old boy through Craigslist. It turned out to be an undercover officer, and Kaiser was apprehended at their intended rendezvous location in downtown Austin. According to the Texas Attorney General's Office, the unit has arrested more than 300 child predators since 2003 as part of a federally assisted program targeting crimes against children.
"The people that perpetrate these heinous crimes upon kids are always looking for additional tools and mechanisms to get access to potential victims, and of course the Internet has been one of those that we have seen grow," said Joy Rauls. Executive Director of Children's Advocacy Centers of Texas Rauls and her office coordinate assistance for the child victims of abuse.
"There is a repetitive nature to people that sexually abuse children," said Rauls. "An average pedophile across their lives can have up to 100 victims, and we know this from research."
"To better protect children on the Internet, we need stronger tools," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott told media Friday at a conference announcing the signing of the federal Child Protection Act of 2012. "Dangers like these to children on the Internet are proving to be very pervasive, and state laws alone are not an adequate remedy to address these challenges."
Law enforcement will soon get those tools. Sponsored by U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), the bill will crack down on child abuse, sex trafficking and pornography. The bipartisan legislation was supported in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Florida).
"It will toughen the penalties for the possession of child pornography, and it will make it easier for United States Marshals to track down and apprehend fugitive sex offenders," Cornyn told media. "It will increase safeguards for child witnesses, and it will establish a national coordinator for child exploitation prevention and interdiction."
"It's a billion dollar industry, and probably much more than that," said executive director David Boatright of the Texas Regional Office for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "It's a worldwide problem because of the scope of the Internet and the reach of the Internet, however we find in Texas that many of these images are created and trafficked and maintained in Texas, created in Texas and sent around the world. It's a local problem, it's a national problem, it's a global problem."
The bill will also increase protections for child victims, many of whom are eventually called to testify against their abusers in court. It's a process that Rauls says can add an additional level of trauma and victimization if not handled properly.
"Our justice system is very adult-minded," explained Rauls. "It was not built for children, and unfortunately the process of going through the investigation and prosecution without a lot of care and coordination can be equally traumatizing to these kids."
"That human trafficker has robbed their innocence," said Boatright. "The child advocacy world is to protect that child and to make sure that it is safe and secure and able to testify, because we've got to have the testimony of that child in court, because we've got to secure a conviction."
As the Internet has expanded, so have avenues for child pornographers and those who seek pornographic material involving children. Rauls says the children involved face the victimization of having their images sent around the world in perpetuity, as well as the victimization of the act itself.
"These are children that have been the victims of child sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault," said Rauls. "So it's important to deal with the victimization that's associated with the distribution of that piece of child pornography as well as the trauma that that child suffered through the act that was perpetrated against them."
"As wonderful as the Internet is, it does have a dark side," said Boatright. "The speed of the Internet, the ability to save files cheaper, storage is cheaper, the Internet is cheaper. That has further enabled sex offenders and child predators to amass massive quantities of child pornography for their collections. So as the Internet has become more powerful and quicker and faster, it has empowered predators to be able to collect more images of child pornography."
It's a problem that, like the Internet, isn't going away. Even with the new law's added protection, Rauls says there are ways parents and ordinary citizens can take steps to reduce the risk of coming into contact with a child predator.
"Parents and people that have children in their lives need to really monitor their child's access to the Internet," said Rauls. "If you have a computer with the Internet in your home, put it in a communal space. Don't have it in your child's bedroom. You need to be watching what they have access to."
"On the other hand, legislators, congressmen, decision makers really need to stay in tune with what the different mechanisms for communication on the Internet are so that we can stay on top of things and ahead of the game in crafting pieces of legislation like this one that help protect kids and appropriately penalize those that utilize the Internet for purposes such as this," Rauls added.
"We can never give up," said Boatright. "We can never stop looking, and we can never stop trying to protect Texas children."
In a time where cooperation seems hard to come by in the nation's capital, it's something everyone can agree on.