BARTOW – There are, sadly, all too many adults who are searching the Internet for minors, and who use chat rooms and other web sites to find teenagers for sex.
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office has a strong warning for them: they are truly being watched these days.
“The numbers are sobering,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd. “According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there are 747,408 registered sex offenders in the country today — an increase of 7,555 offenders, or 23 percent, from the previous survey in June 2011.”
The research by NCMEC, he added, “shows that approximately one in every seven children ages 10 to 17 receive a sexual solicitation or are approached sexually online. These are disturbing figures, but there is good news – the increase in the number of registered sexual offenders means there is an increase nationwide of agencies arresting suspects who prey on children.”
That’s particularly true, he added, in Central Florida.
In September 2007, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office was named coordinator of the Central Florida Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force. In the past five years, the task force has grown considerably, and as of this month, it’s made up of representatives from 47 local, state, and federal agencies.
What that means is that being a part of the task force, each one of those law enforcement agencies has “shared and gained valuable experience and knowledge in the realm of Internet crimes against children,” noted Carrie Eleazer, public information officer for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.
The task force now covers a wide geographic area, comprised of the counties of Citrus, DeSoto, Hardee, Hernando, Highlands, Hillsborough, Lake, Manatee, Polk, Okeechobee, Orange, Osceola, Pasco, Pinellas, Sarasota, and Seminole.
ICAC was developed in 1998 in response to a disturbing rise in the number of children and teenagers using the Internet, the proliferation of child pornography online, and heightened online activity by predators seeking unsupervised contact with potential underage victims. To combat these problems, ICAC assists state and local law enforcement agencies in developing a response to “cyber enticement” of minors, and child pornography cases.
Today, ICAC is a national network of 61 coordinated task forces representing more than 2,000 federal, state, and local law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies. These agencies take part in proactive investigations, forensic investigations, and criminal prosecutions. By helping state and local agencies to develop effective, sustainable responses to online child victimization and child pornography, OJJDP has increased their ability to address Internet crimes against children.
“Protecting our children is our main priority here at the sheriff’s office,” Judd said. “And we are honored to be joined by so many other agencies in this effort.” The results have shown in recent months in Polk County.
Earlier this month, an engineering student from Gainesville, who was on probation for traveling to meet a 14-year-old girl to have sex with her, ended up in the Polk County Jail after detectives say the mother of a teenage girl contacted them, claiming the male student had come to Polk County to have sex with her daughter.
In December, seven men from across Central Florida were arrested and charged with engaging in sexually explicit online chats, text messages and telephone calls with girls and boys ages 10 to 14 — only to discover that when they went to meet with them, the kids were actually detectives with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office taking part in an online sting.
Detectives with the sheriff’s office’s Internet Crimes unit posed as children, and attracted the interest and attention of seven men, including two from Lakeland, and one each from Lake Wales, Kissimmee, Perry, Casselberry and St. Augustine.
When they showed up to meet the young boys or girls, they were arrested and charged with traveling to meet a minor for sex.
Regionally, in 2011 the Central Florida ICAC Task Force successfully investigated 1,156 cases involving suspects using the Internet to victimize children.
“This is a 37 percent increase over 2010, during which the task force investigated 726 such cases,” Eleazer noted.
In 2011, the task force arrested 306 suspects for crimes that included use of a computer to seduce a child, traveling to meet a minor for the purpose of sex, using a computer to solicit a minor to engage in sex, lewd battery, and distribution of child pornography.
“The total number of arrests made since the formation of the Central Florida ICAC Task Force year-to-date is 1,082,” Eleazer said.
In 2011, ICAC affiliates conducted seven undercover operations, and the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office conducted 11 training sessions throughout the year to a multitude of agencies on how an operation like this is run.
Each operation got involved the investigation and arrests of suspects who were arrested for traveling to engage in sex acts with children.
“In each instance, agencies in the Central Florida Task Force come together in a collaborative effort to ensure the great success of each operation,” Eleazer noted.
Since the ICAC program’s inception in 1998, more than 338,000 law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and other professionals have been trained in the United States and in 17 countries on techniques to investigate and prosecute ICAC-related cases.
Across Central Florida, Judd noted, law enforcement is watching every sexual predator closely.
“Together,” he said, “we are making a positive difference.”
Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.