Special Report: Joint effort to combat crimes against children, support survivors in Florida

TV20's Ruelle Fludd investigates the joint effort between law enforcement agencies and nonprofits to protect child victims of abuse
Updated: Jun. 6, 2023 at 7:04 PM EDT
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (WCJB) - At TV20, we’ve reported on more than 20 separate arrests related to sex crimes against children this year so far, but that number pales in comparison to the thousands of cases covered by North Central Florida law enforcement.

Callahan Walsh, the executive director of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), says the numbers of sex crimes against children nationwide are a cause for concern.

“Three years ago we were at 16.9 million reports but last year we had over 32 million reports to our cyber tipline,” explained Walsh.

Detectives rely on NCMEC’s cyber tipline to investigate all types of child sexual abuse cases. In North Central Florida, cyber tips reporting child sexual abuse materials are growing.

Sgt. Chris King, the director of the North Florida Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC), works with sheriff’s deputies and police officers across 38 counties from the Panhandle to the First Coast and the entirety of North Central Florida.

“In 2019, we were just under 3,000 cyber tips for all of North Florida, and in 2023, while I’m still waiting for the final numbers, we were over 8,100 tips in total,” said King

More than 90 percent of cyber tips come from Electronic Service Providers or ESPs which include social media platforms like Facebook, and Twitter. The platforms can also serve as a space for child predators to target potential victims. The use of social media has exacerbated the proliferation of child exploitation material.

“It is such a powerful tool to help catch the predators that prey on our children. It really is the way that most of these ICACs are able to take down individuals because of the reports that come in,” said Walsh.

As the number of cyber tips and investigations grows each year, King says staffing across the North Florida jurisdiction is not keeping up with demand. Although, when the team does arrest a child predator, it’s a joint effort that doesn’t just end with a suspect behind bars.

A victimized child is behind each of the thousands of online sex crimes reported in the region. Twenty-eight child advocacy centers across the state aid detectives in prosecuting suspects by handling forensic interviews for child victims.

“Our doing forensic interviews, it protects [investigators] a little bit from some of that emotional piece but also lets their heart go straight into what they are best at which is investigations,” explained Sherry Kitchen, the director of the Child Advocacy Center. “[Detectives] look for every single angle to find out what happened to that child and make sure that the child is safe.”

In 2022, Child Advocacy Center in Gainesville helped more than a thousand children heal from sexual abuse trauma through therapy. Kimberly’s Center in Marion County, along with the University of Florida Child Advocacy Center does similar work across North Central Florida.

“All of our children here, also have an advocate who follows their case and maybe very hands-on and involved with the child, or maybe they are very hands-on with the caregiver helping to have those basic needs met,” said Kitchens.

From the cyber tipline to sit-down therapy, the overwhelming amount of victimized children and sexual abuse cases paint a picture that it takes people who care to help raise a child.

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