Tuesday, August 18, 2015

This is the first in a four-part series of articles on PROTECT's fight to increase state government spending on child rescue.

by Grier Weeks

It was 2006, and PROTECT was testifying before the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce. In the room was Wyoming agent Flint Waters, and he had just delivered a bombshell revelation about child sexual exploitation.

Law enforcement was monitoring child pornography trafficking every day as it happened, Waters testified. Authorities had located hundreds of thousands of perpetrators in the United States alone, and information about them was stored in a mushrooming database.

I slipped into the hall and chased Waters down. “Did you just say you know where they are?” I asked. “Yeah,” said Waters. “We geolocate them on maps.”

Waters’ revelation changed the course of PROTECT’s work overnight. For the first time in history, child predators were hiding in plain sight. They’d given themselves up by going online and trafficking in crime scene recordings of children being assaulted. We didn't need to wait for the children to disclose and hope the crimes could be proven. All that was needed was more cops to go make arrests.

Within a year, we began lobbying on Capitol Hill with the Surviving Parents Coalition, a group of parents of murdered and abducted children. Erin Runnion, a member of SPC and a PROTECT board member, called it “the saddest club in the world.”

These families were mostly all victims of incredibly rare crimes, and they knew it. No one could have blamed them if they spent the rest of their lives talking about “stranger danger.”

But to their everlasting credit, the parents were quick to tell anyone who’d listen that what happened to them was rare, that most victims were related to or knew their perpetrators. Many of the predators who took their children were also intra-familial predators, they said. Many had had child pornography.

The parents made the case that tracking child pornography back through the Internet was the easiest and fastest way to stop the most predators. And when the parents spoke, politicians listened.

The SPC worked for two years alongside PROTECT, as we fought to pass the PROTECT Our Children Act of 2008, which eventually resulted in a doubling of federal spending on child pornography interdiction and a roadmap for more in the future.

As our federal battle ended, the financial crisis of 2008 hit, Barack Obama was elected president and Congress descended into hopeless gridlock. PROTECT decided to turn our fight to the states.

Our first big battleground was Virginia. As we mapped out our strategy, one ally stepped forward to be the public face of our campaign, a 19-year old woman named Alicia Kozakiewicz. She said she had unfinished business there and needed justice.

Alicia was from a Surviving Parents Coalition family who got their daughter back. At the age of 13, Alicia went outside her Pittsburgh home to meet a “friend” she’d made online. She met a monster and child pornographer instead, who abducted her and took her to a house in Virginia. Four days later she was rescued by the FBI.

When Alicia told Virginia politicians there were thousands more like her waiting for rescue, she didn’t mean children abducted and held by strangers. She meant children who were hostages in their own homes, victims of incest and abuse by caretakers. 

Most politicians had never listened to or cared about those kids. But they heard Alicia’s story. And they knew their political wellbeing required them to take action.

About two years after the passage of Alicia’s Law in Virginia, PROTECT staffer Camille Cooper received a late night call from a Virginia law enforcement officer whose unit had been doubled in size by the new state funding. He was in tears.

“I just carried a little girl out of a house in my arms,” he said. “I just wanted to thank you for what you’re doing.”

The officer later told me the rest of the story. 

“Why’d you do it? She’s your daughter,” a member of the task force team asked the rapist.

“Like you said, she’s MY daughter.”

He went to prison for the rest of his life. And hundreds, soon thousands, more would follow him thanks to Alicia’s Law.

Part Two: A Better Way