When Bill Plahm of the Child Exploitation Unit of the Cook County Sheriff’s Police hands you a photo of a six-month old baby with an adult penis in its mouth, you can develop a dim view of kid porn and pedophilia. They are nasty. For Plahm, who spends his life posing as an eleven-year-old girl on the Internet, such pictures are not unusual. He’s seen worse. And he sees lots. All the time.
“There’s a ton of it,” he says, and it seems to be growing. In fact there’s so much of it that the sheer volume makes it resistant to control. But the pictures aren’t the worst of it. He tells of the girl of twelve who was conned into meeting one of these guys — which is exactly what they are looking for. Whether she was raped or seduced by the guy might be debated, but she was so devastated that she couldn’t testify. He denied the charge, so it couldn’t be proved. He got probation.
This too is common. Probation is common, Plahm says, because the courts are swamped with violent crime and the jails are full. Something has to give.
The Internet is overwhelmingly the method of choice for approaching children. Kids, says Plahm, usually do not tell their parents when they begin talking to predators. A kid, of course, thinks she is talking to another kid. Or she may think she is talking to a romantic young male, not a man of 45.
Judging by the photos of pedophiles on his bulletin board, they are very heavily white, though the country has a large black population, and tend to be in their forties. Plahm says they usually have good jobs and wives, and seem respectable.
When Plahm and the other two cops in the Child Exploitation Unit go online, to the myriad of chat rooms where kids hang out, the pedophiles immediately want to know “ALS.” That’s age, location, and sex. Other questions are where are you, are you alone, where is the computer. The pedophile next turns the conversation to matters sexual. Kids of course talk about such things to each other, so it isn’t alarming to them. Kid porn plays an important role here. If a little girl says, “Ewwww, kids don’t do that,” he sends her photos of kids doing that.
“Photos lower inhibitions. Pedophiles know it,” says Plahm.
Next the guy tries to set up a meeting. Plahm says they will come from almost any distance. I don’t think people know how very much these guys want to get to the children, or what lengths they will go to. One guy flew from Sweden.
The last time I talked to the Child Exploitation Unit, an officer told me of having arranged, by pretending to be a young girl, a meeting with a pedophile. The guy showed up with a video camera, condoms, and a tube of KY jelly. These guys mean business. They are not effeminate fondlers, gentle and essentially harmless. What they do isn’t a victimless crime, or a minor crime. Kids get hurt, occasionally killed, often screwed up for life.
The sheriff of Cook County, Michael Sheahan, is serious about reducing exploitation. Among other excellent ideas, he has endeavored to put teeth in the laws on the subject, and set up (as have other jurisdictions around the country) an on-line list of known pedophiles, including photos and where they live. (If interested, you can find it at here.)
A splendid idea. Everywhere ought to do this. Sentences should be long. Pedophiles are notorious recidivists. They don’t repent. Letting one out amounts to sentencing other children his attentions.
Parents need to learn computers, says Plahm. Know what an AOL profile is? If your daughter goes to AOL chat rooms, the odds are good she has age, location, and sex in her profile, accessible to anybody on earth. (AOL, says Plahm, is good about trying to prevent abuse.)
Where is the computer she uses? (Or he: homosexual pedophiles go after boys.) It should be in a common area, says Plahm, where the screen is visible. Does she spend long hours online? Not good. Get her riding lessons. Spend time with her.
Plahm worries about the probable arrival of the audiovisual Internet, in which computers will be equipped with television cameras and microphones. It’s doable now, but awkward. It’s getting easier. Cameras are available today, cheap.
“It’s scary,” says Plahm. “Can you imagine what pedophiles are going to do with that?”
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