Kimberly’s Center for Child Protection, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and the Ocala Police Department are taking aim at a major threat to children: internet crimes such as the production and distribution of child sexual abuse material (child pornography) and minors being solicited for sex online.
An announcement of the agencies’ new, combined effort was outlined on Sept. 12 in a press release from Kimberly’s Center. Here’s what we know:
Who are the local partners?
Kimberly’s Center for Child Protection, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and the Ocala Police Department.
What is the organizational structure?
These three local agencies have established an Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) local partnership. It is part of the larger ICAC North Florida Task Force Program. And that, in turn, is part of the national ICAC task force, which started in 1998 through the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
The national network has 61 task forces representing more than 5,400 law enforcement officials from the federal, state and local levels, as well as prosecutors’ offices, the release says.
What will the local partnership do?
According to the release: “The local ICAC partnership seeks to expand its efforts by delivering education and training opportunities to empower law enforcement, parents, educators and youth about the dangers that are becoming more prevalent.”
“This program is critical because it supports the victims and strengthens the criminal cases to support and protect children and teens in our community. Education and awareness are the best defenses against Internet crimes against children, and this collaboration seeks to provide our community with these tools,” said Dawn Westgate, executive director for Kimberly’s Center for Child Protection, in the release.
A growing problem
Through the years, Marion County law enforcement has arrested dozen of people in sting operations designed to catch predators who are going online to solicit children for sex. The defendants think they are communicating online with children, but actually are making arrangements with officers.
In 2018, seven men were arrested in “Operation Can’t Touch This.” In 2021, a dozen men dubbed the “dirty dozen” were arrested. Earlier this year, 20 men were arrested in Operation MAP Mirage.
In March, a Fort McCoy man was sentenced to an 80-year federal prison term for producing child abuse material and receiving sex abuse material. According to federal officials, he impersonated a federal agent and used that false authority “to coerce underaged female victims to produce and send him child sex abuse material over the internet.”
As for the national picture, the release says: “The numbers at the national level are staggering. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in 2022, there were 32M CyberTips related to child sexual exploitation. Since 2015, there has been a 1,000% increase in online enticement of children by sexual predators. In 2019, 43% of the children depicted in Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) were prepubescent.”
What is Kimberly’s Center for Child Protection?
Also known as the Marion County Children’s Advocacy Center, Kimberly’s Center “is a local nonprofit that has served abused and neglected children in Marion County since 1996,” according to the release. Its mission is to “respond to, protect, and restore children who have suffered from abuse and neglect, so they can get the help, hope and healing they need.”
The center is a 501(c)(3) organization and depends on community partners as well as local and state grants for financial support.
How can I help?
Kimberly’s Center will be among the organizations participating in Give4Marion, a countywide fundraising blitz set for 10 a.m. Sept. 19 through 7 p.m. Sept. 20. More at give4marion.org
Supporting the center:Grant helps Kimberly’s Cottage hire new staff
In the agency’s 2022-23 impact report, Kimberly’s Center for Child Protection officials said 1,328 children came to the facility “to receive critical investigative and treatment services.” Forty percent of those children had suffered some form of sexual abuse.
Of the 1,328 children served, 62 percent were female. As for age, 477 were 7 through 12 and 472 were 6 and younger.
In 2019, the center launched a Child/Teen Safety Matters curriculum. According to the impact report, through that program, advocates from the center have visited multiple classrooms countywide, teaching children and teens the skills and information they need to be safe here and online.
Contact Austin L. Miller at 867-4118, [email protected] or @almillerosb