Friday March 23, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- The Vermont attorney general's office and multiple law enforcement agencies are asking for a $200,000 allocation from the $5 billion state budget to expand resources to fight against child pornography.

Authorities hope a more proactive response in the future will reduce the number of child exploitation cases in Vermont while identifying on-line predators through a greater amount of monitoring and investigations. A recent summary from the state task force to prevent such crimes reports Vermont is not immune to sexual offenders abusing or exploiting children and law enforcement must not remain behind the curve as technology continues to make such graphic images more accessible.

"The vast majority of those we know who are downloading and making available what is identified as child pornography are not currently being investigated, and it's in no small part because of the lack of resources," said Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell, who spent the week visiting with media outlets to raise awareness of the scope of the issue in the state.

In his proposal, Sorrell asked for $200,000 to pay for a full-time investigator for on-line monitoring and investigations, as well as an attorney in his office to coordinate referrals and prosecutions. Lawmakers have pushed to drop the proposed attorney for an additional full-time forensic examiner to decrease the extended time lapse between investigations.


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For non-priority cases, examiners are employed to scope through cellular phones, computers and other electric devices in search of evidence of child porn. But the amount of manpower at the public safety laboratory is limited and investigations are oftentimes backlogged as long as four months.

As of March 15, police have found 250 different IP addresses in Vermont where files are shared.

Lt. J.P. Sinclair, with the Vermont State Police, commands the Crime Scene Search Team, which includes three forensic examiners. He said Vermont needs to move in a direction of better recognizing high-tech crimes and it has been a challenge to keep up with the technological advances within the past decade.

"Our problem is every time you see one of these new products come out from Apple or Microsoft or anything like that, for all the good things it does, it's also misused," Sinclair said. "It's kind of come to the point with our workload associated with the task force that we need some help."

The benefit of having an additional forensic specialist in the state offers law enforcement a point person to monitor activity and trace Internet Protocol (IP) addresses to the computer. However, police need to secure a search warrant to receive the name and computer of the addressee.

Lt. Kris Carlson, of the Burlington Police Department, leads the Internet Crimes Against Children task force and said they are in desperate need of more personnel resources.

Investigators are recruited and trained from local departments across Vermont, but are only active with the task force on a part-time basis because of their roles in other agencies.

"We don't have any full-time investigators. If you're talking about the Peer-to-Peer operations, we don't have any full-time law enforcement officers who are assigned to that, we have a few part-time folks assigned to that and their ability to work is dictated on the individual department needs," Carlson said, referring to the Peer-to-Peer file sharing software programs.

Existing programs enable offenders to send, receive and view obscene images and videos of child pornography.

Police say there is no reasonable possibility of an accidental download or viewing because offenders must join a specific network, which officers investigate to detect Internet activity where criminal files have been intentionally sent.

Vermont investigators utilize two software tools to identify and locate users possessing and sharing child pornography files.

On an international level, police have identified more than 20 million different IP addresses offering child pornography files. Many of the images and descriptions are far too graphic to describe.

While police have documented cases of child pornography produced in Vermont, officers do not know where most of the images and videos on Peer-to-Peer networks are coming.

"That's one of the problems with the investigation of cases involving child pornography is that there are hundreds of thousands of images out there that are unidentified. We don't know who the victims are, we don't know who the suspects are, we don't know where they are taken, we may not know when they are taken," Carlson said.

"Having the resources available to really kind of track down these offenders and infiltrate their networks and engage in more proactive types of investigations where we're actually looking for people rather than just responding to incidents that have already happened, that's really crucial to the mission," he added.

The move to expand funding sources to nab individuals making and sharing images comes as the Vermont House is considering the $5.01 billion budget. Gov. Peter Shumlin, a first-term Democrat, supports Sorrell's plan.

Since the Internet Crimes Against Children task force was established in 1998, it has received funding through the federal Department of Justice, meaning Vermont has relied mostly on Washington, D.C., dollars to cover its investigation and prosecution of child pornographers.

Last year alone, the federal government provided $222,000 for overtime, equipment and outreach. The grant also offers mental health services for investigators dealing with the repugnant nature of the crimes.

Sorrell said it is time Vermont pay its share.

"This proposal that we put together after a number of meetings in the fall with Burlington, South Burlington, state police and federal authorities was for the state to finally put some resources in and have us not just be dependent on federal dollars," Sorrell said. "I think the Legislature is going to appropriate the $200,000 and we're going to have, finally, $200,000 of state resources dedicated to this effort."

The possession and distribution of child pornography is a crime. Vermont was one of the last states to outlaw simple possession of child pornography.

Chris Garofolo can be reached at cgarofolo@reformer.com or 802-254-2311 ext. 275.