A couple of weeks ago, Utah authorities arrested a 43-year-old man named Danny Steven Hardman in Salt Lake City, not far from where I live with my wife and children. The charge: four counts of sexual exploitation of a minor.
Authorities allege Hardman was grooming two six-year-old girls via Facebook and through playing online video games with them. He managed to convince the children to send him sexually explicit images of themselves.
Child sexual exploitation and trafficking ranks amongst the fastest-growing criminal enterprises in the world, with the United States leading the way in consumption of child exploitation material. But during the COVID -19 pandemic, crimes such as those allegedly committed by Hardman have risen to levels I have never seen before during my almost two decades in working these criminal cases as a special agent, undercover operator, and CEO of two different anti-trafficking organizations.
Why is pedophilia flourishing during a global pandemic? Societal support structures that keep children safe (schools, sports programs, music lessons, etc.) have vanished, shut down per government directives. Taking such life-protecting measures has left many of our children sitting idle at home with computer screens or smartphones in front of their faces.
With moms and dads otherwise preoccupied, fighting for their jobs and procuring food and supplies for their families, these children are left to surf the Internet, often without proper (or any!) supervision. Pedophiles, often jobless, are also stuck at home with computers.
Law enforcement has reported that, during the government shutdowns, as they have monitored chatter on the deepest reaches of the Internet, child predators like Danny Hardman are openly admitting to one another that pandemic time is harvest time. They confess to one another they are living a pedophile’s dream.
In March alone, there were more than two million reports of Internet crimes against children, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. That is more than double similar reports from the same period a year earlier. Things got worse in April, with some 4.1 million reports of Internet crimes against children — a fourfold increase from April 2019.
The two young girls rescued in the Hardman case were lucky in one way. Many predators who groom children online are not stopped before they can physically get their dirty hands on their child targets.
As I experienced this tragedy unfolding from the front lines as a child protector, I prayed that all the politicians and public health experts were getting the COVID-19 response right. Despite the fact that the FBI, on March 23, warned what would happen, I wondered aloud, “Are these governors, particularly those who came down the hardest on the people in their states, listening? Do they understand the cost their policies are having on innocent children?”
My answers to these questions came powerfully, and my heart broke as I recently listened to a collection of medical and scientific professionals, including a Nobel Prize winner, Stanford medical professors, and a top doctor from the Cleveland Clinic, all come to the same conclusion about the COVID-19 outbreak, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has confirmed. Those 60 years old and younger have a 99.7 percent or more chance of survival.
Those older than 60 (especially those older than 70) are in a different category. And extreme measures should indeed be employed to quarantine and protect them. Just a tiny fraction of the trillions of dollars the government has paid in an attempt to save failing businesses could have easily covered the cost to take really, really good care of those most vulnerable to the virus’ worst effects.
As state governments around the nation plunged headlong into drastic shutdown measures, I don’t believe any of them even considered the risk and potential long-term damage they were exposing our children to. For example, did they pause for even a moment to consider that upwards of 90 percent of those who create the societal infrastructure that would have protected these children are 60 years old or younger, with more than a 99 percent chance of surviving the virus?
How could they have considered it, when in places like my home state of California convicted sexual predators were released from jail and delivered into our communities, in fear that these convicted rapists might contract COVID-19?
It boils down to one simple question we all need stop and ask ourselves right now: is this response to a virus with a 99.7 percent or more survivability rate worth hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of children being sexually exploited and assaulted? Look into the eyes of your own beautiful child, grandchild, niece, or nephew, and honestly answer that question.
Now here we are with a second crisis on our hands manifested by protests and riots surrounding the tragic death of George Floyd. With calls to “defund the police” and to transform policing in this nation, I plead that these vulnerable children have a seat at the table during the discussion.
My entire career has been focused on funding and empowering police at home and abroad to prevent child sex abuse. Unfortunately, the vast majority of police units in America already do not have the resources they need to fully combat child exploitation. So you can imagine why I am deeply concerned about efforts to “defund.”
Remember, these children, of all ages and of all colors, do not have the ability to organize, protest, march, or riot. Who will hear them? Who will see them?