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With the all-pervasive cell phone, proliferation of social media, and new encryption software, the dark web is awash in illicit images of children. Law enforcement, numerous civic organizations and even private individuals are fighting back.

The question is: are they losing the battle? 

The virus that is child sex abuse material – or what child safety advocates call CSAM – found its way to Key Biscayne, sending shockwaves through the community for the new year. William McCaughan Jr.,who lived at an unidentified condominium on the island, faces two child pornography charges.

The pandemic threw fuel on the fire. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says reports to its tip line increased 47% between 2020 and 2022 and 99% percent of those involved CSAM.  Prepubescent girls are the most likely to be exploited. 

“It has exploded,” said Jay Houston, director of training for the Boca Raton-based Child Rescue Coalition.  “I think it was honestly because everybody’s working from home and with the ease of access to anything. If you can click on it, you can download it.”

While law enforcement, organizations and even private individuals fight to expose those trafficking in child abuse images, the first defense against CSAM starts at home.

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“Parents just have got to be more cognizant of the dangers there are on social media and the use of the smartphone or an Ipad or just the internet,” said Houston.

Key Biscayne Police Chief Frank Sousa echoed Houston, saying parents need to be monitoring all the websites that their children are accessing. His department goes into the schools on the island and also tries to educate children on the dangers lurking on the internet.

“I think parents have to have a responsibility here and ensure that their kids are safe, checking what their kids are doing on the internet, instructing children not to give out passwords, don’t send photos to anybody, don’t go into any chat rooms,” Sousa said.

How families can protect kids

Talk to your child about online predatorsImplement parental controls 
Profiles of minors should be set to privateEstablish clear rules
Regularly monitor your child’s technology devices Keep devices in shared spaces for children under 10
SOURCE – Child Rescue Coalition

If parents suspect their child is being targeted, there are red flags, according to RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization.  Predators often target children in an online chat, on social media, or during online gameplay. They often lie about their age to gain trust or give gifts before sexualizing the relationship and making demands.

The sources of the imagery are legion. Parents may innocuously post a YouTube video of their daughters swimming. A girl takes a shower at a relative’s house. In some cases, children themselves have posted images to sites like Tik Tok without parental knowledge.

“As parents, I mean, you just have to be very careful. No baby in the bathtub stuff. You have to protect your family,” Houston said.

Sometimes, though, CSAM depicts actual crimes of horrendous sexual abuse committed against children.

In the Key Biscayne case, the FBI alleges that video of an 11-year-old  Texas girl was surreptitiously taken by her uncle ended up in the possession of  McCaughan Jr. He now is in pretrial detention at the Federal Detention Center in Miami facing two child pornography charges, each carrying 5-year minimum mandatory prison sentences. 

Though content providers claim to be vigilant, the computer algorithms that run these platforms often are not.

When two 10-year-old girls in Rio de Janeiro filmed themselves swimming, their parents posted it on YouTube for family, in an incident publicized by the National Children’s Alliance. Instead, YouTube served the video up to a particularly niche group that was interested in content of partially-clad children. The video had 400,000 views in a few days.

McCaughan Jr.’s  arrest shocked Key Biscayne. The lawyer was arrested  July 28 but news media only got wind of it Dec. 31 when the Florida Supreme Court revoked his law license. 

The story led to a barrage of  fear-mongering posts on social media chats like WhatsApp and Nextdoor that a predator was loose in Key Biscayne. In fact, McCaughan had been at the Federal Detention Center since his arrest. 

Court records indicate he did not request a bond hearing, which is a Constitutional right, and agreed – almost immediately – to remain in custody while the court case proceeded. 

How prevalent is the trafficking of CSAM? 

McCaughan wasn’t the only South Florida lawyer to lose his license in the last two months for possessing illicit images of the underaged. Palm Beach Gardens lawyer Michael Dolce got sentenced to four years in prison after admitting to downloading nearly 2,000 images on his personal laptop. 

Messenger apps, such as Kik or Snapchat, also make it easier for traffickers to get images to others, Houston said.  In Snapchat’s case, the messages self-erase after the user receives them. 

Federal prosecutors  charged more than 100 defendants with child exploitation offenses nationwide in 2023.  Two FBI agents were shot to death in 2021 when trying to execute a warrant in an investigation that would lead to 98 arrests. 

“The protection of children around the globe is among our nation’s highest obligations. Within our district, the prosecution of those who repeatedly sexually offend children is of the utmost priority,” U.S. Attorney Markenzy Lapointe for the Southern District of Florida said earlier this year after a Boca Raton man was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

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JOHN PACENTI is the executive editor of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.

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JOHN PACENTI is the executive editor of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.