By Jim Haddadin
More than two dozen law enforcement officials gathered in Portsmouth Thursday to thank U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte for her efforts to strengthen New Hampshire's Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force.
The event took place on the heels of the recent signing of the Child Protection Act of 2012, a piece of federal legislation aimed at curbing child exploitation online.
Members of New Hampshire's ICAC team gathered at Portsmouth City Hall with Mayor Eric Spear and representatives from the state attorney general's office to offer their thanks to Ayotte for her advocacy on behalf of the ICAC program.
A previous law appropriated $60 million per year for ICAC task forces, but the funding was set to expire at the end of fiscal 2013. The Child Protection Act reauthorizes funding at the same level for another four years.
"When the exploitation of children occurs online and child pornography is distributed, that child is re-exploited every single time that occurs," Ayotte said, "and there's obviously a huge connection between those who are exploited and the crimes that are committed against them and other crimes, so this is a very important effort."
Written by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., the act is geared at helping police target child predators.
It increases the maximum penalties from 10 years to 20 years for child pornography offenses that involve prepubescent children or children under the age of 12. It also permits federal judges to issue protective orders in cases where child victims or witnesses are being harassed or intimidated.
Another provision gives the U.S. Marshals limited subpoena authority to locate and apprehend fugitive sex offenders.
As the bill was negotiated in Congress, Ayotte worked to "strengthen training and technical assistance" available to law enforcement, according to information provided by her staff.
One outcome of that effort was a provision in the bill that doubles the amount of money available for relevant ICAC training, according to Ayotte.
Implementing the new act carries a total estimated price tag of $121 million between now and fiscal 2018, according to an analysis prepared by the Congressional Budget Office.
New Hampshire's ICAC team was assembled in 1998. The group is headquartered at the Portsmouth Police Department, and it investigates cases across the state. Members are stationed at dozens of participating police departments, including in Rochester, Manchester and Concord, and at the attorney general's office.
The ICAC team coordinates with federal agencies to investigate crimes ranging from possession and manufacturing of child pornography to child prostitution.
Portsmouth Police Chief Stephen DuBois called the ICAC program one of the most important facets of the police department. The ICAC team has provided training to about 1,500 police officers, 150 prosecutors, and at countless other community outreach programs.
Since 2007, the team has investigated more than 500 cases, resulting in 115 arrests.
One such case involved an individual posting sexually explicit photos of children manufactured at his house. An investigator in Washington, D.C., became aware of the photographs, and the ICAC team worked with officials in the attorney general's office and the Hinsdale police. ICAC coordinated the efforts, ultimately leading to the child victims being removed from the home.
DuBois also detailed a second case in which a detailed investigation by the ICAC team turned up evidence of shocking abuse. The case originated in Milton, and was investigated by a Rochester police investigator.
In that case, school bus driver John Wright, 46, pleaded guilty to federal charges of exploiting minors following his arrest last September. The victims used the Provider Bus Services, and had Wright as their Seacoast bus driver. He operated out of Dover and Kittery, Maine.
Authorities issued a search warrant for Wright's home and found thousands of graphic assault images on his computers and peripheral devices, including several videos of Wright assaulting the victims.
Officials concluded Wright used hidden cameras in pens and sunglasses to record students aboard his bus, while he was sexually assaulting them, and even to record other students who were simply riding along.
"Had it not been for the efforts of Sen. Ayotte's commitment to protecting children and partnering with us on training, incidents such as these ... would have remained secret," DuBois said.
Rockingham County Attorney Jim Reams highlighted changes made by the Child Protection Act that will remove barriers to training across the country. He described a changing mindset in New Hampshire courts and among lawmakers regarding the need for tougher sentencing in child sex crime cases.
Ayotte served as New Hampshire attorney general from 2004 to 2009 before being elected to the Senate. During that time, she helped to push for the successful passage of the Online Child Safety Act, according to information provided by her office.
"With the challenges and the great things that we can find on the Internet, and the educational opportunities, we've found that there are many challenges that have come with law enforcement, and our laws were not up to date to deal with those challenges," Ayotte said.
Enacted in 2008, the act increased penalties for people convicted of using the Internet to facilitate a crime against a child. During her tenure, Ayotte also traveled around the state to educate teens and parents about safety online.
"Her work in Washington is absolutely consistent with what she did here when she was our attorney general," Reams said.
Brad Russ, retired Portsmouth police chief, and current director of the New Hampshire ICAC Task Force's Training and Technical Assistance program, held up a printed map, which was marked with pins to represent locations where someone committed a felony offense in the preceding 10 hours by trading child pornography online.
Research shows about 50 percent of those perpetrators are also molesting children, Russ said, and the fact is most of those victims will never come forward to police, he said.
"Local departments often don't have the resources or the expertise to be able to investigate those crimes on their own," Ayotte said, "and that's where the ICAC Task Force, and the collaboration between the task force and local departments makes sure that online predators don't get away."