In late October, amidst the enchanting ambiance of Rome, where cobblestone streets echo with centuries of history, I found myself strolling through the magical “This is Wonderland” event in Rome. It's like stepping into “Alice in Wonderland”—a story we all adore, but did you know it has a mysterious backstory? The author's famous tale, allegedly inspired by an equally mysterious love connection with a 10-year-old muse, invites contemplation on the delicate balance between innocence and unseen dangers. Just as the enigmatic origins of “Alice in Wonderland” are hidden and blurred, so too are the potential threats lurking beneath the surface of seemingly innocent places designed for children.
As I returned to my home that evening, I began thinking back to earlier this summer in Rome, when I had come upon an article about the arrest of a 36-year-old Roman man for pedophilia. What caught my eye in this article, however, wasn’t just the heinous nature of the crime; it was the global cooperation that took place to bring about the arrest. Based on a tip from the Australian police about explicit images depicting abuse of a minor found on the internet, an arrest of the predator was quickly made. The Italian police were able to quickly infiltrate the dark web, find the images, and bring the predator to justice.
The speed and efficiency of global cooperation intrigued me, so I contacted the Italian National Police. I was led to their National Police Cyber Crime Unit, specifically, the Postal and Communication Police Service, and a special task force unit CNCPO ( Centre for combating child exploitation online). CNCPO specializes in child sexual exploitation online and crimes against children. For those of you who are SVU fans, think of the real life version, in Italy, specializing in cyber crimes against children. I was able to get tremendous insight into the dark world of cyber sexual crimes against minors. But I was also shown some light in the form of well trained and compassionate officers, and an NGO (a non-government, non-profit organization) that supports law enforcement agencies to make sure they can benefit from specific training on the latest technologies, as well as providing a victim aftercare program.
The NGO is an American based, international organization known as OUR (Operation Underground Railroad) For ten years, OUR has been providing global support for law enforcement, as well as aftercare support for victims. The Italian Cybercrime Service began their cooperation with OUR a little over six months ago. The Italian Cyber Crime unit, having made it a priority to be trained in the latest technological tools to catch predators, developed and welcomed this cooperation between organizations. Wonderfully, the cooperation and friendship between the police and OUR has given each the tools to be more effective in their mission.
OUR works with the Italian Postal Unit and cyber crime units across the globe to ensure that everyone has the latest technological abilities and training to catch predators as quickly as possible to minimize the damage to the children and their families. The technologies used by the Italian police and OUR have several benefits. They help to catch the predator quickly, and remove the CSAM (Child Sexual Abuse Material) material as quickly as possible. The latest technology also helps the officers extract identifying information from the images without having to view the abuse multiple times, which is damaging to the mental health of the officers.
Safeguarding the mental health of the officers reduces the risk of them leaving the unit because of stress overload, so that the experienced personnel are preserved. OUR estimates that over 2 million children are trafficked each year. With so many hidden dangers, even in places designed for children, how do we protect our children?
One of the biggest takeaways from the Italian police is universal; it truly takes a village to keep our children safe. Here are some tips I learned:
• Use the parental controls on your child’s phone and computer. Establish an open dialogue with your children about the hidden dangers on the internet–chat rooms, games where they chat with strangers, etc. Teach your children that it's ok to say “no” if an online conversation feels uncomfortable.
• The internet is forever. It’s so important that children and teenagers understand that everything they post and share on the internet is forever.
Although the subject matter of this column is dark, the intent is to shine light not only on the dangers around us, but to shine a light on the progress being made by real life superheroes like Italy’s Cyber Crime Unit and Operation Underground Railroad. Help is available. If you are in a dangerous or abusive situation or suspect you know of one, please contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's Cyber Tipline, available 24 hours a day, at 1-800-843-5678. If you see something, say something.
Leigh Ann Miller is the daughter of Bonnie and the late Carl Miller of Hillsboro. She works in Italy, and is currently working with OUR on a series of articles on forced labor and human (especially child) trafficking. She will begin work in January as communication manager at the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center in Rome.