I Want Your Children to Be Safe Online
By Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz
Although I am very proud to represent South Florida in Congress, the job I am most proud of - the job closest to my heart - is being a mother to my 9-year-old twins and my 5-year-old daughter. That's why, in Washington, I have no higher priority than protecting children from harm.
Last year, I met a very special group of parents called the Surviving Parents Coalition. These parents share a tragic bond: each of them had children who were abducted and sexually assaulted. Many of their children will never come home. I heard one mother describe how a 43-year-old predator came after her daughter Alicia through her computer, in an Internet chat room, where he pretended to be a teenage girl. He abducted her in Pittsburgh, after they decided to meet "in real life." He abducted her and took her to Virginia, where he kept her bound in his basement for days and broadcast unspeakable acts over the Internet. Thankfully, Alicia was rescued by an Internet Crimes Against Children task force. Many are not that fortunate.
Our children today are growing up in a different world. The Internet is a wonderful tool. It has opened up the world for our children, but it has also opened up our children to the world. Just last week, the New York Times reported that the Internet is now a bigger draw to our children than television. A recent survey showed that 83 percent of children between the ages of 10 and 14 spend more than an hour on the Internet each day. Only 68 percent spent that much time in front of a television. This means that, as parents, we're not doing enough if we only teach our kids how to handle strangers they meet on the street. We must also teach them what to do when strangers approach them on the Web.
The good news is that there are things we can do to protect our children online. This month, I held an Internet safety educational event at a computers-focused middle school in my district. Alicia, now a young woman, also attended, and shared her real-life experience. I was also joined by law enforcement agents, educators, child safety advocates, and good corporate citizens, who all shared my commitment to keeping children safe when they are online. They provided parents with software and other technology to help maintain cyber-safe homes. They educated parents and teachers about staying safe from predators and cyber-bullies in chat rooms, on their cell phones, and on popular social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. (For information on how to protect your children from child predators, and for other Internet safety tips, you can visit the FBI's Innocent Images Project at: http://www.fbi.gov/innocent.htm).
Still, with children now accessing the Internet from mobile devices, parents will not always be able to watch over their children. Parental control software may not always work. And predators might be able to trick even a savvy child who has been educated on Internet safety techniques. That's why we need to make sure that even when technology and education fail us, we have a strong law enforcement safety net to fall back on.
Children, like Alicia, are at risk because they can become unintentionally swept up in a multi-billion dollar child pornography industry. Right now in the United States there are a half-million people trading images of child pornography online. Tragically, the demand in this criminal market can only be supplied by graphic new images of abuse, which can be supplied only through the sexual assault of more children. Eighty percent of those who possess child pornography possess images that depict children being sexually penetrated. Another 21 percent depict sadistic rape. Let me be clear: this goes way beyond obscenity. These are crime scene photos.
What is worse, due to a lack of resources at the state, local, and national level, law enforcement is currently investigating less than two percent of those known predators. Law enforcement knows who they are, and they know where they are, but they lack the resources to investigate and prosecute. Many of these known traffickers of pornography are producing these images with real, live victims inside their own homes. We know that if we were to investigate these known traffickers, we could rescue a real child victim up to 30 percent of the time. That means there are thousands of children out there in America - just like Alicia - who are waiting to be rescued.
As a mother, this broke my heart. But as a Member of Congress, I felt compelled to act.
I filed a bill called the PROTECT Our Children Act (HR 3845) with one of my personal heroes, a giant in the Senate, and now our very own Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee: Senator Joe Biden. Our bill will dedicate hundreds of millions of dollars to fund state, local, and federal law enforcement efforts to lift the digital fingerprints of these crimes, locate these perpetrators, and bring them to justice. The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed our bill last November, and I am hopeful the Senate will pass the bill this year. When it does, you can be sure that, as a Member of the Appropriations Committee, I will continue to fight to make sure our law enforcement officers have all the resources they need to keep our children safe.
When I tuck my children in at night, I feel comforted by the fact that we have educated them about being safe online. I will feel even better when I know we are dedicating more resources and effort to this important national priority. I am fighting in Washington to make sure that we are protecting our children and giving parents a stronger sense of security.