ST. LOUIS — The economy, our schools and our health have all been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
There's something else that's happening in isolation, more and more children are becoming victims of online predators. With kids learning from home and adults working remote, law enforcement say it has created the perfect storm for sexual exploitation.
For 7 months, a global pandemic has forced us to quit our routines and take on a new normal. While schools and sports have been scaled back and playgrounds closed, something criminal is happening online in homes across the country and the victims are children.
Sgt. Adam Kavanaugh is with St. Louis County's special investigations unit working human trafficking and internet crimes against children.
"More people are at home with time on their hands. These people then start reaching out even further than what they would normally have time do," explained Sgt. Kavanaugh.
"My mission is to make sure that every predator that I can find goes to prison," he explained.
It’s been his mission for 20 years and he doesn't do it alone.
FBI special agent Daniel Root works with the human trafficking and crimes against children task force.
"Both human trafficking and sexual exploitation is a significant problem worldwide and also here in St. Louis. It’s not like a Lifetime movie. It’s not Liam Neeson’s kid in Taken and in reality it looks a lot different. Our victims are vulnerable members of society who've been exploited and used in a commercial sex trade," explained Agent Root.
Both men help track and take in predators in Eastern Missouri and parts of Illinois. During the pandemic, St. Louis County alone has seen a 30% increase in child exploitation cases.
The FBI's task force is inundated.
"What we have seen is an explosion in child exploitation cases. A lot of kids are out there looking for validation. They’re out there looking for friends and unfortunately they find them in the wrong places," Agent Root said.
The nationwide numbers are shocking. A graph from the national center for missing and exploited children shows a 93% increase in online enticement reports from January through June compared to the same time last year.
“We see kids as young as eight or nine who are instantly connected with the perpetrator and feel that connection to them and wanting to do the things that they are asking them to do and then almost or even fearful for that person getting in trouble,” Amy Robbins of the Child Center in Wentzville said.
Robbins’ organization is dedicated to these types of cases in St. Charles, Lincoln, Warren and Montgomery counties. Their cases have doubled since last year.
“We've seen nine kids for emergency cases, that means all of our slots are already booked,” Robbins said.
Robbins' has some tips to make sure your child doesn't become a victim.
"Look for changes in behavior. You look for things that seem off or don’t seem right. The biggest thing you can do is just talk. Have a conversation let them know they can always trust you with anything that goes a huge long way with these kids just knowing and identifying that there are safe people in their lives," she explained.
In most cases, law enforcement says the victims are vulnerable and are targeted for making posts online with words such as ‘I feel lonely’ or ‘I'm not loved’ or ‘I’m not good enough.’