Child pornography tips to N.J. police surge during pandemic

Officers say they often see a surge at times when people are home more, but nothing like this. They credit more vigilance from social media companies.

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New Jersey State Police car in Trenton, N.J.

New Jersey State Police car in Trenton, N.J. (Alan Tu/WHYY)

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Last month Union County prosecutors charged 19-year-old Elizabeth resident Dakeem Stockling with possessing and distributing child pornography.

The charges arose from an investigation that began in March, and allege that Stockling posted explicit images of a minor to Instagram in January and possessed or viewed other explicit images of minors on the social media platform since then.

It came amid a recent surge of tips related to online sex crimes against children that coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has prompted millions of people to stay home from work or school and conduct much of their lives online.

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The New Jersey State Police saw a 213% increase in tips between March 1 and May 23 of this year compared to the same period last year. The Union County Prosecutor’s Office received 29 tips in April, up from just 17 during the same month last year — a 70% increase.

“We will see upward trends whenever people are home more often — summer vacations, for example,” said Union County Prosecutor Lyndsay Ruotolo.

“But this is different in that everyone is home,” she said.

State Police Lt. John Pizzuro, commander of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, said more children are being victimized, but not to the degree that the increase in tips may indicate. Social media companies are reporting more questionable content to police and viral videos of potential crimes spur dozens or hundreds of tips about the same incident, he said.

Pizzuro estimated that online crimes against children in New Jersey have increased 25%-50% during the pandemic, but he said it would be months before those investigations come to fruition.

The uptick occurring in New Jersey mirrors what is happening nationwide. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported a staggering 318% surge in tips this April compared to the same time last year, although some of that increase was due to several child sexual abuse videos that went viral on social media.

Marci Hamilton, CEO of the advocacy group Child USA, said online child predators are more likely to target children when they’re at home and unsupervised, and persuade them to engage in sexual activity either virtually or in person.

“Now that the child is likely to be online perhaps the entire day, there’s all these available avenues that these perpetrators didn’t have before,” Hamilton said.

Ruotolo also suggested that people who share explicit photos of children online may be doing it more often if they are working from home, and that creates more opportunities for social media companies and other users to flag the criminal content if it is posted on a public platform.

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“It’s more reporting and it’s more vulnerability,” Ruotolo said.

Experts say parents should talk to their children about the dangers of socializing with strangers online and turn their computer screens to face a common area of the house. Hamilton said adults should also encourage kids to never remove their clothing for any reason online.

New Jersey officials have also sounded the alarm about an increase in child abuse during the coronavirus pandemic.

Calls to New Jersey’s child abuse and neglect hotline plummeted in March, typically one of the months with the highest number of reports. Reports dropped even further in April, by 46% compared to the previous year.

State officials suggested that it was not because fewer children were being abused, but rather that fewer adults were around to see the signs of such treatment and report it to authorities. They say teachers, coaches and doctors who would see children regularly are not and therefore miss the opportunity to spot the warning signs.

Anyone can report a crime of child endangerment in New Jersey online on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s website or call the New Jersey Computer Crimes Task Force Hotline: 1-888-648-6007. To report child abuse or neglect in New Jersey, you can call the state’s Child Abuse Hotline: 1-877-652-2873.

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