LAKE COUNTY, Ill. (WLS) --It remains a constant threat to our children, and yet the possession and sharing of child pornography on the internet is more common than most would ever imagine.
For nearly two decades, law enforcement throughout the country has worked to coordinate the fight against child pornography through a template known as Internet Crimes Against Children.
ICAC has produced training for tens of thousands of parents and police to recognize and arrest the spread of child pornography, but it persists. The Lake County sheriff's office started its own unit several years ago.
Detective Chris Covelli is the public face of the Lake County sheriff's office as their spokesman, but he has another role. He leads the department's cyber-crimes unit.
Covelli demonstrated his work by signing in on his laptop and joining a "meet new people" chat room with the screen name "Sweetgurl13." Within 20 seconds, he received requests for private messages.
One message asked him to open his web cam, which he sidestepped. He repeated that Sweetgurl is 13. He didn't lead the discussion. Then came the question: "Do you have sex?"
A video link opened showing a man exposing himself. A crime has been committed. It all happened in less than five minutes and it is extremely common.
"With the expansion of the social aspect of these platforms comes the expansion of child pornography because these predators know what to say to the children," Covelli said.
Tracking the sender has led to a growing number of child pornography arrests, ten in Lake County over the past year and more than 1,000 statewide in the last decade. Is it getting worse? The experts say yes.
"Twenty some years ago, if you talked to law enforcement they'd tell you in large part we've tamped this down, but now it has grown exponentially, and it's more difficult for law enforcement to find, but law enforcement has had to keep up," said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
"A lot of these cases we go on, the neighbors had no idea, the families had no idea, anybody that knows this individual has no idea they were into child pornography," Covelli said.
Those arrested are public servants, teachers, IT specialists...a cross section of life. The images many possess and share are hideous. Much of it is international. Toddlers sexually brutalized. It can take a toll on those who police it.
"We have had people who've said I can't do this anymore because I can't get it out of my head and these images are so horrible," Madigan said.
Many of the investigators have young children of their own. Their fundamental message: Parents need to explain the dangers to their children, even if they trust them implicitly.
"It's not an issue of trusting your child," Covelli said. "That's not the issue. The issue is trusting everyone in the world who has access to your child because they have a device that connects to the Internet."
Much of the spread of child pornography today occurs on apps for smartphones and tablets. Apps that may seem innocent but turn out to be chatrooms for strangers, or game apps that are gateways to something other than fun. That's where predators lurk and lure.
For more insight, visit the website for the National Center for Missing and exploited children at: http://www.netsmartz.org/Parents.