Inside a nondescript building, in a cubicle decorated with his kids' pictures, a Maryland State Police investigator peers at his computer screen. A Yahoo chat room is open; category: romance, Maryland.
He types: "any1 into wrestling? with boys..."
It's a Monday morning at 11:17, a time when most kids are in school and most adults at work. Yet, in just eight minutes he gets a lead - and that's a slow day.
The number of offenders sexually exploiting children, particularly through pornography, has skyrocketed with use of the Internet, law enforcement professionals say. That has led to a more than 20-fold increase in cases investigated since the late 1980s and an even bigger jump in those prosecuted at the federal level, which ramped up efforts through the Project Safe Childhood initiative in 2006. Since then, sex offender registry laws have been tightened, millions of dollars in new national grants disbursed, databases built, state initiatives launched in Maryland and elsewhere, and federal and local partnerships created.
But the concentrated attack has a tiny impact on a large and burgeoning problem. The Maryland State Police has just four full-time investigators focusing on such child exploitation; they work roughly 30 active cases at any given time. If they had the resources, they "could have 180" cases, said Lt. John Wilhelm, commander of the state police's computer crimes division.
Child sexual abusers once had to find their prey in the schoolyard or neighborhood and risk receiving pornography in the mail. But the Internet gives them easy access to kids through social networking sites, pornography through peer-to-peer sharing sites, and a community of like-minded people through online chat rooms.
The Internet has simply made it easier to be a predator, and some - including Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein - say that has made for more predators. At any given time, according to federal data, about 50,000 pedophiles are seeking victims online. As the number of offenders mushrooms, authorities say they can't keep up.
The perception is largely anecdotal; definitive trend data is difficult to come by. Organizations have different ways of defining abuse and collecting information, and much abuse goes unreported. Some sources suggest that the number of victims is decreasing, while others say it's rising.
One thing is certain, however: The problem is receiving more attention than ever from both law enforcement and the media, through news reports and shows like Dateline NBC's To Catch a Predator.
Maryland investigations have unmasked some seemingly unlikely offenders, including former state Delegate Robert A. McKee, who recently pleaded guilty to child porn possession and was sentenced in November to 37 months in federal prison. Because they're at home, trolling the Internet, pornography predators often feel safe, anonymous and removed from the crime, leading them to take risks online they might not otherwise, officers said.
"We could have our entire squad working it, and there would still be more work to do," said David Musgrove, the supervisory special agent in charge of the FBI's cyber crime unit in Baltimore. There, six full-time investigators work roughly 80 active child sexual exploitation cases. Nationwide at the end of October, there were 5,300 such FBI cases open.
"The best we can do is make people see it's a really big problem," he added
A Department of Justice report released last month says the ramped-up efforts to combat sexual crimes against children has led to a backlog of FBI digital evidence, which can take as long as nine months to review. The agency plans to open a new lab in Linthicum this year to speed things up and to comply with a congressional mandate, said Special Agent Richard Wolf, spokesman for the FBI's Baltimore field office.
The FBI regularly goes into schools to talk about the issue and warn children and families of the dangers. Yet agents still see parents letting their children troll the Internet unmonitored and young teens taking sexual pictures of themselves with their cell phones, then sending them to friends or boyfriends. If those relationships sour, the exes often launch the images into cyberspace, where they become part of a collection of pornography, said FBI Special Agent Marc Southland.
It's a tough, never-ending job. To catch predators, agents, many with kids of their own, spend all day looking at horrible images of children - babies sometimes - being sexually assaulted, humiliated, tortured. They have to go for psychological evaluations annually to make sure the work is not messing with their heads.
"The bottom line is, it's for the kids," Wilhelm said. "Who else is going to defend the kids?"
In 2006, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced the launch of Project Safe Childhood, describing it as a targeted effort designed to better coordinate federal and local prevention, investigation and prosecution of sexual predators.