U.S. District Judge Douglas Harpool looks at data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission while explaining some of the demographics of those who commit crimes against children
U.S. District Judge Douglas Harpool looks at data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission while explaining some of the demographics of those who commit crimes against children. (Photo by Jackie Rehwald)

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One in an occasional series on child sexual abuse in the Springfield area.

The Western District of Missouri — which includes Springfield, Kansas City and Joplin — has been ranked in the top 5 out of the 94 federal court districts in the United States in the number of child pornography cases since 2010 (with the exception of 2021).

U.S. District Judge Douglas Harpool, who presides over many of these cases, said the heinousness and offensiveness of the crimes people commit against children and then peddle the images on the dark web have been a true “eye opener” for him since becoming a judge 10 years ago — and something that keeps him awake at night.

“I was a member of the legislature for 10 years and I practiced law for 30 years in this town before I became a judge,” Harpool said. “I was not an uninformed citizen by any means. But I am still stunned at the level of depravity that sometimes lives within our community.”

From his experience, Harpool believes when the average person thinks about victims of child pornography (the preferred term is Child Sexual Abuse Material or CSAM), they imagine victims age 13 or 15 — maybe a teen girl who is well developed at an early age.

But many of the images and videos are of very young children — even babies, Harpool said.

“People are looking at toddlers being sexually abused by adults, and toddlers being put in positions of beastiality,” Harpool said. “It’s just beyond any, I think, common perception of what child pornography is. It’s more disgusting.

“You’d have lunch with your friends, and they’d read in a paper that I sent somebody (to prison) for child pornography, and they are going, ‘Yeah, you gotta be careful on the internet. Those 15-year-olds can look like 18-year-olds,’” Harpool said. “And I go, ‘Yeah, but the 3-year-olds don’t.’”

Judge contemplates why child porn cases are so prevalent here

In 2020, the Western District of Missouri had the most child sexual abuse material offenders in the nation, with 42 offenders convicted.

Judge M. Douglas Harpool (Photo: U.S. District Court, Western District of Missouri - Springfield)

Harpool is aware of those troubling stats, but can’t say with certainty why. Instead, he offered two possible explanations.

“Neither of which are very satisfying to me,” Harpool said.

“One is we are just more attuned to it, and therefore are doing a more aggressive effort at enforcing it,” Harpool said. “That’s not completely satisfying because then I worry about children in every other jurisdiction in the country.

“And the other is that we are indeed disproportionate in the frequency of the commission of this crime,” he continued. “And obviously that’s disconcerting as to what it is about the social makeup of our district that would cause this crime to be committed that often. That’s a question more for a sociologist than a judge.”

The social and professional demographics of the perpetrators who wind up in Harpool’s courtroom would surprise a lot of people, he said.

“People in positions of authority from preachers to children’s ministers, to teachers, to coaches who take advantage,” he said. “I’ve seen them date a woman solely for the purpose of getting close to their daughters. I’ve seen them take in financially insecure women and abuse their daughters, and the women feel powerless to do anything about it because they don’t have any economic alternatives.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie L. Wan.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie L. Wan. (Photo by United States Attorney's Office, Western District of Missouri)

Stephanie Wan, Assistant U.S. Attorney with the Western District of Missouri, echoed Harpool’s concerns. Prior to joining the Department of Justice, Wan was the Chief Assistant Prosecuting Attorney with the Greene County Prosecutor’s Office. She spent 13 years with Greene County, prosecuting physical and sexual child abuse.

When it comes to sexual abuse crimes against children, Wan said it’s rarely a “stranger danger” or “creepy guy in a van” perpetrator.

“When I was at the county prosecutor’s office, one of my last trials was a former Greene County Sheriff’s Office lieutenant,” Wan said. “He’s serving six life sentences now.”

Though she is with the U.S. Department of Justice now, Wan continues to work with state prosecutors on these types of cases. It’s not uncommon for state prosecutors to allow the feds to take a case because perpetrators convicted of federal crimes will likely face tougher penalties and more prison time.

Internet, social media putting children at risk

The proliferation of the internet and dark web — that part of the internet accessible by means of special software that allows users to remain anonymous — has increased the amount of child sexual abuse material and number of children being victimized “exponentially,” said Katiina Dull, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center in Springfield.

“Before the rise of the internet, they had actually come pretty close to eradicating child sexual abuse material,” Dull said. “But now with the digital age, you can create this content, you can duplicate this content, you can distribute this content, you can monetize this content — all from your living room.

Katiina Dull is the executive director of The Child Advocacy Center, a Springfield nonprofit group helping to identify and prosecute child abuse while assisting young victims in healing from their painful experiences. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

“It has just exploded in the rates of exploitation and perpetration that we see because technology has made it so readily accessible to everyone,” she said. “Before the internet, you know, maybe you were able to take some pictures on your own. But getting those developed — like, you can’t take it to Walmart photo lab. Mass producing and distributing it was hard. The internet and digital world just means now that anybody can do it.”

Not only is it easier to create and disseminate child sexual abuse materials, the internet has increased predators access to kids who are online and in different digital environments and communicating with strangers.

These digital environments include spaces like chat rooms for popular video games and social media sites — spaces where kids feel safe and feel as though they are communicating with peers, which may not always be the case.

‘When we talk about stranger danger and things like that, it doesn’t trigger for our kids that this (person) might be a threat,” Dull said. “Because they genuinely feel like, ‘I know this person. I am connected to this person.’ And so it starts with some of that and it leads to, ‘Well, let’s meet up, you know.’ And in between that is, ‘Send me a picture.’ Then it gets explicitly more and more graphic.”

The recorded interview room at the Child Advocacy Center in Springfield. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

In its 2023 report to Congress, the U.S. Department of Justice highlights the “unprecedented and ever-evolving challenges in the war to protect our children from online sexual exploitation and abuse.”

“Due to these technological advancements, the scale, complexity and dangerousness of threats facing children today are unprecedented,” the report says. “Simply put, modern technology is the perfect tool for child sex offenders, giving them access to children all over the world and putting them in touch with other child sex offenders with whom to conspire — all while concealing their identities and locations and often, but not always, their activity.”

Federal prosecutor points to ‘explosion’ of cybercrimes

Wan specializes in prosecuting sexual exploitation of children using the internet, the possession and distribution of child sexual abuse material and child sex trafficking.

But even for someone like Wan, who has some 15 years experience prosecuting these type crimes and routinely works closely with the Department of Justice’s Cyber Crimes Task Force, staying ahead of the technology is almost impossible and perpetrators are continually finding new ways to exploit children online.

“We have really great computer forensic analysts here and in other counties that do really great work,” Wan said. “But it’s changing so much. And as adults, like, I can barely keep track.”

The problem of children being groomed and exploited by strangers online has increased dramatically in recent years. (Photo by Philipp Katzenberger of Unsplash.com)

The problem of youth being groomed and exploited by strangers online dramatically increased during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wan said.

Most children and teens were physically and socially isolated during the pandemic, forced to do most of their learning and socializing online. This left children more vulnerable to sexual exploitation from strangers they met on social media and in chat rooms.

“Since then we have seen an explosion in the online child exploitations, whether it be receiving, distribution of child pornography, to increase calls about internet exploitation,” Wan said. “Some of that had to do with everyone was at home, right? And everyone was using their computers.”

A ‘continuum’ of offenders, sentences

According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the median federal prison sentence for those convicted of crimes related to child sexual abuse material is 90 months, or about seven and a half years. When crafting a sentence, Judge Harpool takes into consideration numerous factors from criminal history to how long the person has been consuming such materials to whether or not they’ve actually created child sexual abuse material by physically abusing a child.

But oftentimes an offender is caught early on and before their crimes have escalated.

“If you ask people on the street, they hear somebody looks at child porn and they say, ‘throw him away forever.’ There are differences in cases,” Harpool said, adding he often sees perpetrators who have been looking at child sexual abuse material for a year or less and have never been in the chat rooms, never shared images and never took any photos or videos.

U.S. District Judge Douglas Harpool says sex offenders face harsh sentences, and onerous restrictions once released from prison. (Photo by Jackie Rehwald)

“And then you have the ones who are just horrible, evil people,” he continued, referring to perpetrators who’ve looked at and traded child sexual abuse material for years and those who’ve created such materials. “So when you see a sentence, if you don’t know all the facts of that case, you don’t really know.”

It’s worth noting the other terms of the sentence once they are released from prison, including the years of mandatory supervised release with pretty “onerous restrictions,” Harpool said.

For example, they can’t be within 1,000 feet of a school, park or playground without specific permission. They can’t have any internet access without permission from their probation officer and cannot maintain or create a user account on any social networking site that allows access to persons under the age of 18.

They have to register as a sex offender. They have to pay restitution, which is often thousands of dollars.

Perpetrators also have to complete a sex offender treatment program in prison, but Harpool isn’t sure how effective such programs are in all instances.

“The honest answer is I don’t know. I think it’s like most treatment programs. If people want to be treated and want to control their problem, I think the programs help,” Harpool said. “I think there are some that have such a deep-seated addiction that the programs won’t help them.”

This, too, is something the judge considers when crafting a sentence for an offender.

“Some of them claim that they’ve tried to stop and they just couldn’t,” Harpool said. “What is it about our society that they don’t feel they’re free to go get help beforehand? It’s only after they get caught.

What is it about our society that they don’t feel they’re free to go get help beforehand? It’s only after they get caught.

U.s. district judge douglas harpool

“Some of them, they’re not sincere in their desire to get better,” he said. “Others, I think they have families who they know would be so outraged to learn they have this problem and they’re seeking help for it, that they think they’re better off just living with it.

“There’s such a stigma attached to admitting you have that problem, that people won’t admit it,” Harpool said. “I’ve had several say, ‘I’m glad I got caught.’”

‘Two or three of them got up and left the courtroom’

The indictment documents for child sexual abuse material cases usually include at least three or four descriptions of random samplings from the images and/or videos. Because these descriptions are detailed and graphic, Harpool puts thoughtful consideration into how or what he speaks about in court.

Harpool recalled a specific case involving a local prominent attorney convicted of federal child sexual abuse material charges not long after Harpool first took the bench.

At the sentencing hearing, that defendant decided to fill Harpool’s courtroom with numerous members of a church Harpool once attended — perhaps thinking the judge would be swayed by the familiar faces in the gallery.

“I knew most of them personally,” Harpool said. “Normally I wouldn’t want to go into a lot of detail, but I thought that those people and lawyers ought to know. So I started reading the details. And, I mean, the faces — two or three of them got up and left the courtroom.”

Judge: Victims suffer lifelong trauma

Harpool often worries perpetrators don’t view the victims of the child pornography industry as being real people. So he makes sure to remind them when it comes time to hand down his sentence.

“There are victims, and I want to make sure they understand that, understand that they have impacted them for the rest of their lives,” he said.

Harpool has heard from victims who describe a lifetime of mistrust of adults and confusion over sexual boundaries — even in cases where the photos and videos were made years ago.

He recalled one victim in particular who, even though the videos or photos were made of her when she was about 10 and she was a 20-something adult writing to the judge, reported how it continues to impact her relationships.

It’s incredibly difficult for them to ever have a normal relationship with anybody.

U.s. district judge douglas harpool

“She goes, ‘No matter who you meet, in the back of your mind you’re going, I wonder if they know about the video. Or I wonder if they’ll find out about the video. Or should I tell them about the video,’” Harpool said. “It’s incredibly difficult for them to ever have a normal relationship with anybody.”

And because perpetrators of cyber crimes related to child pornography often spend a lot of time in online chat rooms — communicating with people who have the same addiction and issues — Harpool makes sure they hear from him that this behavior is not normal and not tolerated.

“This is not acceptable. The fact that you’re with all these other people and they all think the same, that’s not what the rest of us believe,” Harpool tells offenders. “That’s not what the overwhelming majority believe and I want them to know they’re out of step and it’s unacceptable. And they won’t be allowed to act this way.”

The sentencing hearing is likely to be the only opportunity Harpool has to give advice to perpetrators. And the judge knows many of them will get out of prison at some point, so he makes this request:

“If you feel tempted, get help,” he said. “Our probation office can get them services. But if they yield to the temptation before seeking help, prison is their destination. I try to let them understand the level of scrutiny they are going to be under.”

And if the defendant loads the courtroom with family members, Harpool said he tells the family this: “We all, as society, have a duty and a responsibility to not allow this behavior.”

Rise of sextortion cases troubles judge

Harpool said he’d heard about the death of Evan Boettler — an Aurora teen who fell victim to financially motivated sextortion threats and died by suicide — on television news but doesn’t know any details about the case.

A shelf in the home of Brad and Kari Boetler holds a small memorial to their son. Sixteen year old Evan Boettler died this year from suicide after being victimized in a “sextortion” scheme. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Speaking in general, though, Harpool said the rise in sextortion cases is something he finds especially troublesome.

“I’ve had two or three of them already — when people pose on the internet as young people and get other young people to send them photos,” Harpool said. “And then they follow up by saying, ‘Now I want a photo of this or I want a photo of that.’ And it gets more and more extreme.”

Harpool said the perpetrators then threaten to send the photos to the kid’s parents or put them on the internet for everyone to see — if the kid doesn’t comply and send more photos or money.

The judge recalled a recent case involving a young girl who endured extortion and harassment for a year before attempting to kill herself.

“She tried to put him off and not show him another one,” Harpool said. “Then she gave him one more but it wouldn’t be completely what he wanted, and I think finally the pressure of him telling her, ‘I’m gonna tell your parents, I’m gonna put these on the internet,’ — she tried to kill herself.”

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A judge’s and prosecutor’s message to parents

After more than a decade of prosecuting those who prey on children, Wan shared a few suggestions for parents to keep children safe.

First and foremost, Wan encourages parents and caregivers to take children seriously and listen if and when they disclose allegations of abuse.

“Even (as a county prosecutor), one of the things that I would hear just anecdotally from kids were, ‘You know, I was afraid to tell because I felt guilty or I was afraid to talk because I didn’t think anyone would believe me,’” Wan recalled.

Wan referenced a study conducted a few years ago in which researchers interviewed child sex abuse offenders.

“The offenders talked about the things they avoided. And the first thing they avoided were children who are close to their parents,” Wan said. “Children who have trusted adults in their lives — that they feel safe to talk to, that they can tell anything to — are going to be the No. 1 thing, I think, that offenders want to avoid because they don’t want to get caught.”

“I want parents to understand that the No. 1 thing that keeps kids safe is having a trusted adult in their life. And hopefully that’s mom and dad — or mom or dad — that they can talk to anytime anyone makes them uncomfortable,” Wan said. “Being able to have the freedom to say, ‘Hey, mom and dad, something happened to me and it’s making me feel a little uncomfortable,’ is going to be the No. 1 thing for protecting children.”

The offenders told researchers about a second thing they avoided: confident children who can speak up when they are uncomfortable with something, who have body autonomy and who aren’t as susceptible to a predator’s grooming tactics.

“(Children) that have the confidence to say, ‘No. No, I’m not comfortable with this,’ or ‘I don’t need that,’ or ‘I don’t need this person to be in my life because I feel good about myself,’” Wan said. “Just being able to have the confidence and be like, ‘This is making me uncomfortable and I can say no.’”

In Harpool’s view, it’s important for parents to have open and frequent conversations with their kids about the dangers lurking online and how to stay safe. He wants parents to understand this is not a matter to take lightly.

“There are sexual predators on the internet,” Harpool said. “Some of them may not live here, but they’re out there and they are evil and sick people who will harm your child.

“The need to monitor social media is not overstated. I see the worst of it,” he said. “It’s not worth the risk.”

Tips for parents from the FBI. (Click to expand)

The internet, for all of its benefits, also gives criminals and predators an easy way to reach young people. The FBI most often sees crimes against children begin when an adult:

  • Forges a relationship with a young victim online and then later arranges to meet and abuse the child; or
  • Coerces a child into producing sexually explicit images or videos through manipulation, gifts, or threats—a crime called sextortion.

The most important advice for parents is to have open and ongoing conversations about safe and appropriate online behavior. Other advice to consider:

  • Educate yourself about the websites, software, games, and apps that your children use.
  • Check their social media and gaming profiles and posts. Have conversations about what is appropriate to say or share.
  • Explain to your kids that once images or comments are posted online they can be shared with anyone and never truly disappear.
  • Make sure your kids use privacy settings to restrict access to their online profiles.
  • Tell your children to be extremely wary when communicating with anyone online who they do not know in real life.
  • Encourage kids to choose appropriate screen names and to create strong passwords.
  • Make it a rule with your kids that they can't arrange to meet up with someone they met online without your knowledge and supervision.
  • Stress to your children that making any kind of threat online—even if they think it's a joke—is a crime.
  • Report any inappropriate contact between an adult and your child to law enforcement immediately. Notify the site they were using, too.

Report child exploitation

If you or someone else is in immediate danger, call 911.

  • Contact the FBI online at tips.fbi.gov.
  • Contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children Cyber Tipline at report.cybertip.org or 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678)

Jackie Rehwald

Jackie Rehwald is a reporter at the Hauxeda. She covers public safety, the courts, homelessness, domestic violence and other social issues. Her office line is 417-837-3659. More by Jackie Rehwald