CLOSE

Alicia Kozak, the first known victim to be abducted by an online predator, talks about the epidemic of child exploitation.

Asbury Park Press

New Jersey could join a dozen other states that financially bolster law enforcement investigations of online child abuse to compensate somewhat for a lack of federal funding that has left agencies on defense against an exponentially growing epidemic. 

Gov. Phil Murphy and one of the state’s top lawmakers have indicated their support to dedicate state money to New Jersey’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, a coalition of dozens of law enforcement agencies led by the State Police.

Their initial backing comes as reports of online abuse and exploitation of children have spiked 75% during the COVID-19 pandemic, as recently detailed by the Trenton bureau of the USA TODAY Network Atlantic Group. 

“The answer conceptually has to be yes” on state funding, Murphy said Thursday. “The incidence of child abuse online, there’s no question has gone up; it continues to go up. If we could figure out a smart way to coordinate and approach that with fellow states, you betcha.” 

Kevin McArdle, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, said: “The speaker is deeply disturbed by the details contained in the article. He will speak with his caucus about potential legislative action to address this troubling issue.”  

Other states have found ways dedicate revenue to their internet task forces by passing some version of what’s known as Alicia’s Law, named for Alicia Kozak, the first known child to have been abducted by an online predator.

As a teenager, she was sexually abused and tortured for several days after meeting someone on the internet she thought was her age.

States expand funding for online child abuse investigations

Alicia Kozak, the first known victim to be abducted by an online predator, talks about the epidemic of child exploitation. She is advocating for a law in her name to be passed in New Jersey, as it has in many other states. Middletown, NJ Thursday, October 8, 2020  (Photo: Doug Hood )

In Virginia, the first state to pass that law and where Kozak was held captive, an additional fee for misdemeanors and penalties is permanently dedicated toward its internet crime task force. Kentucky and Hawaii do the same. Arizona and Texas allocate state lottery funds to investigate online child abuse cases. 

The state money is used to hire additional staff or resources, as well as to pay for training. And it’s needed, advocates said, because no presidential administration has ever fully funded the $60 million allocated by Congress when it passed the PROTECT Our Children Act in 2008. That bill was sponsored by then-Sen. Joe Biden, who won the presidency Saturday.

The funding shortfall means task forces such as the one in New Jersey are left to spread about $500,00 to $600,000 every year to pay for training and investigations. It’s just a fraction of what is needed to effectively fight an epidemic in which millions of pieces of child sexual abuse material regularly circulate online, according to experts. 

The pandemic has only made what was a growing problem worse.

There were 5,251 reports of online child exploitation in New Jersey through mid-October, a 75% increase from 2,996 at the same point last year, according to State Police. Those increases mirror the national trend in abuse tips.

Arrests have not been on a similar upward swing, though, for various reasons, not all tips turn out to be legitimate or worth bringing charges. As of late October, New Jersey’s task force made 226 arrests, down from a peak of 778 last year, according to the Department of Justice, which tracks such data.

“They’re just completely in reactive mode and they’re completely overwhelmed,” Grier Weeks, senior executive of the National Association to Protect Children, said about state task forces. “The thing I hear most often from the task forces is that proactive investigations are a luxury.”

Another pandemic is raging: Online child exploitation reports are up 75% in NJ

A new look at online child abuse in New Jersey

Gov. Phil Murphy speaks during his Friday, June 26, 2020, press conference at War Memorial in Trenton, NJ, on the state’s response to the coronavirus. (Photo: Thomas P. Costello/Asbury Park Press)

New Jersey still conducts sting operations when possible, and, on Friday, the Attorney General’s office announced that a California man was sentenced to seven years in prison after flying to New Jersey with plans to pay $500 to sexually assault who he believed to be an 11-year-old girl. 

There has not been a serious discussion in New Jersey of passing its own version of Alicia’s Law to prop up law enforcement, but Kozak now lives in Monmouth County and would like to see her adopted home state become the next one to adopt her eponymous legislation.

She said in a recent interview it is “unacceptable” for money to prevent from children being rescued from abuse.

COVID update: Over 5,000 new cases of COVID in NJ this weekend as second wave surges

But spending money to support rescuing children and babies who are captured on video being sexually abused and tortured tends to get tied up in political deal making, Weeks said. 

“To get money for anything you have to be willing to horse trade and spend your own political capital. And at the end of the day, I hate this expression, but children don’t vote,” Weeks said.

“They’ll spend $10 million on a trolley line or something like that, and the political perception is there’s a bang for the buck there. But if you spend that money on arresting sexual predators and rescuing kids, there’s some kind of disconnect.”

Getting state aid during an economic downturn

CLOSE

Lt. John Pizzuro, commander of the State Police’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, gives advice on talking to your children about their online activity to help stop online exploitation.

NorthJersey.com

Finding money in New Jersey is always a struggle and declining revenues in the pandemic may make it even more difficult.

But Sen. Linda Greenstein, the Democratic chairwoman of the Law and Public Safety Committee, said at the very least there should be a discussion of the problem and that she would look into scheduling a hearing to learn more.

It seemed to make sense to Greenstein to also research financial support for abuse investigations. 

“Even if we do part of what’s needed and we start to do it gradually, it seems like something we need to pay attention to and send money to it,” she said.

Greenstein added that she hadn’t been aware of the depth of the problem of online child abuse. “You see these things on television, it’s just hard to believe,” she said. “In this case, I think, the reality is horrendous.”

Dustin Racioppi is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to his work covering New Jersey’s governor and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @dracioppi 

Read or Share this story: https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/new-jersey/2020/11/09/online-child-abuse-investigations-could-get-financial-boost-nj/6188238002/