Child porn, exploitation numbers jump drastically in Hamilton and across Ontario

In the last decade in Hamilton and across Ontario, child pornography and child exploitation incidents have grown a staggering amount, data obtained by CBC News shows.
Back in the 90s, Ontario Provincial Police would deal with two to three child pornography charges a year. That number has soared to 1,292 incidents last year. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

In the last decade in Hamilton and across Ontario, child pornography and child exploitation incidents have grown a staggering amount, data obtained by CBC News shows.

From police officers to victim services and support workers, the rallying cry is the same: The exploitation of children is a problem that is affecting more victims and demanding increasing attention from police and social agencies every year.

"The amount of files coming to our attention is on a massive increase," Ontario Provincial Police Det. Staff Sgt. Frank Goldschmidt told CBC News.

It's a loathsome problem that experts say is caused by many things. Chief among them is the continued rise of the internet and social media, which is connecting predators to victims — and to each other — in ways never before possible.

With internet child exploitation, the abuse never stops.- Karyn Kennedy, president and CEO of Boost Child and Youth Advocacy Centre

While that explosion of technology has also given police a larger arsenal of tools to fight the problem, it's still nearly impossible to keep up with an increasingly interconnected underground culture.

Back in 2005, Hamilton police didn't lay any charges for child pornography or child sexual exploitation.

But in the last decade, those numbers rose drastically. Statistics Canada data shows local police reported 42 child pornography incidents in 2015:

This video created by the OPP shows the sheer proliferation of the problem.

The red pins signify 2,038 unique IP addresses that were broadcasting as either a "download candidate" for suspected child pornography, or the user was present on a child exploitation website — all from within just a three-month period in Southern Ontario this year.

The red pins signify 2,038 unique IP addresses that were broadcasting as either a “download candidate” for suspected child pornography, or the user was present on a child exploitation website – all from within just a three-month period in Southern Ontario this year. 1:34

The video shows there are hundreds of IPs in Southern Ontario alone, with some being nodes that expand to reveal multiple IP address connections.

As child pornography incidents spike, the number of total sexual violations against children rose too, peaking at 50 in 2014, before dipping to 28 last year:

According to Statistics Canada, that tally of incidents doesn't even accurately capture how many children are truly affected, due to some incidents involving multiple victims.

Parents advertising their own children on Craigslist

It's not a Hamilton-centric problem, but the city is certainly emblematic of a troubling provincial trend. Police services across Ontario reported just 358 child pornography incidents in 2005, compared to 1,292 last year.

The number of total sexual violations against children province-wide has grown steadily too, from 19 incidents in 2005, to 894 last year.

"Absolutely there is a rise in activity. The access is there. It's just so easy," said Karyn Kennedy, the president and CEO of Boost Child and Youth Advocacy Centre.

"We're seeing cases where both parents are advertising their own children on Craigslist."

That sort of crime seems unthinkable, but it happens. Last month, a Niagara-region woman was charged with 36 offenses, stemming from allegations that she sexually assaulted both of her children with a weapon, made them available to be sexually abused by others and was involved in the production of child pornography.

Police say one of the children allegedly abused was only four years old.

Back in July, police announced that a Hamilton man is facing child pornography charges after a multi-jurisdictional investigation traced evidence of illicit images of a child to a local IP address — one of several this year.

'There's a shame, a betrayal'

It's organizations like Boost that help pick up the pieces afterwards. Boost is a non-profit organization that provides programs and services for children, their families after abuse or violence has occurred. 

Kennedy has also seen a steep rise in the need for Boost's services — as the number of referrals they have received for counseling after abuse has almost quadrupled from 100 in 2011-2012, to 370 referrals so far from 2015-2016.

The impact that child exploitation has on a young person cannot be overstated, Kennedy says. "There's a shame, a betrayal. These pictures never really go away."

That's especially prevalent when it's a case like the Niagara incident. "One of those children is seven years old. For her, the concept of sex with an adult, she can't understand that yet," Kennedy said. "When she's 16 and wants to date, she'll be wondering if her boyfriend, or his father, or his uncle, has seen those photos."

"With internet child exploitation, the abuse never stops."

Technology connecting predators to victims

Goldschmidt, who is the provincial co-ordinator for Ontario's strategy against online child exploitation, has been working in this field since 1991.

"Back then, it was very uncommon to do more than two to three cases of child pornography a year," he said. Those days are long gone — and he attributes much of the rise to digital interconnectivity.

"Technology and the internet play a huge role for providing these people the tools they need to prey on kids … and to find each other," he said.

That doesn't mean solely finding each other to trade illicit material, he says. It's also an avenue for pedophiles to "perfect techniques," and normalize their behaviour.

Hamilton police Staff Sgt. Joe Stewart also attributes much of the rise seen locally in the last several years to the internet.

"It's highly likely that more children are being victimized because of the prevalence of the internet," he said. "It's still shocking to me. It's happening right here. These predators live amongst us.

"It's just despicable."

It isn't as if police are fighting this battle with no weapons at their disposal. Investigators now have new avenues with which to gather evidence, like text messages, iMessage chats and social media data. The issue, investigators say, is gathering and analyzing that data can be a massive undertaking.

And just as police have new tools, so too do predators.

Lurking on the Dark Web

Stewart points to encrypted hard drives and remote deletion as just two of the tools used by pedophiles to cover their tracks.

There are also anonymity tools that give criminals greater freedom on the so-called Dark Web — the corner of the internet largely filled with illicit materials hosted on an anonymity network called Tor.

According to a study from the University of Portsmouth in England, over 80 per cent of dark web visits relate to pedophilia. Visits from law enforcement and anti-abuse groups can skew those results somewhat, but it still speaks to the sheer volume of material that's out there.

So what can be done to combat the problem?

Goldschmidt says he will "never say there are more than enough bodies" on the investigative side, but he says ministry support and the overarching provincial strategy has made a fair amount of headway.

There are 27 different law enforcement agencies involved across the province, alongside a victims service coordinator and two Crown attorneys — though Kennedy says that's still not enough.

"We're just not allocating enough resources to deal with this problem properly," she said.

"And we're talking a child's whole life — it will always stay with them."

adam.carter@cbc.ca

About the Author

Adam Carter

Reporter, CBC Hamilton

Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Hamilton home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music in dank bars. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.