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As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, West Virginians have reported a drastic increase in cases of child sexual abuse involving the Internet.
West Virginians reported about 450 more cases of online child sexual exploitation to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2021 than in 2020, and about 650 more cases than 2019.
In 2019, parents, guardians, police, and Internet companies, such as Facebook, reported 1,139 tips to the center, according to Sgt. James Kozik, director of the West Virginia State Police Crimes Against Children Unit. In 2020, that number increased to 1,333 tips. In 2021, they reported 1,791 tips. That’s about a 50 percent increase from 2019, before the pandemic, to 2021.
People who want to sexually abuse children may use the Internet in several ways.
They may condition kids to trust them over time, a practice called “grooming,” then manipulate the child into sending a photo or meeting them in person. They may pretend to be another child. They may make threats.
They may also take or share photos or videos of children being sexually abused or explicit images of children.
Lisa Zappia, a licensed counselor and CEO of Prestera mental health center, noted that as kids spent more time isolated, families have dealt with more stress and conflict.
Meanwhile, extracurriculars, classes and other outside-the-home activities slowed or were canceled, so kids have seen friends and loved ones less often.
“If you’ve got somebody reaching out to them who’s interested in them, professing to be a supportive person, acting like they care, acting like they’re willing to help them with stuff, then they’re going to engage in conversations because they’re young, and they think this person is wanting to be helpful… So they look for that connection,” Zappia said.
Zappia, who worked to help prevent sex offenders from re-offending in a previous job, said like other people, sex offenders exhibit some of their worst behaviors when they’re under stress.
Sgt. Kozik said perpetrators became more aggressive during the pandemic, demanding in-person meetings or images of particular acts.
“And there is an impression amongst offenders that during the pandemic, that nobody was watching,” he said. “And my belief is that many times that was correct.”
Sgt. Kozik said the vast majority of the tips reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children involve the possession, manufacture and distribution of child sexual abuse materials. That includes explicit photos and videos of kids, as well as photos and videos of kids experiencing sexual abuse.
Since a photo or video can be shared multiple times, the number of reports is unlikely to be the same as the number of victims. But the number of reports does show the problem has dramatically escalated.
The second most common type of report involved a perpetrator using the internet with the intent to commit a sexual offense or abduction.