By Ed Runyan
A Trumbull County assistant prosecutor says he has prosecuted an “epidemic” of sexting cases involving high-school students in the past 18 months.
“I’ve seen an absolute explosion of cases,” said Gabe Wildman, who was assigned to a newly created division within the prosecutor’s office called the Child Porn and Cyber-Abuse Unit 18 months ago.
Juvenile-court proceedings are private, so the public doesn’t hear much about them. Sexting involves sending nude images of oneself to another through an electronic device, such as a cellphone or computer.
Wildman said the problem with sexting is one reason Prosecutor Dennis Watkins created the Child Porn and Cyber-Abuse Unit in late 2011, though its better understood purpose was to prosecute adults who possess and disseminate child pornography.
The dangers of sexting hit the news in July 2008 when Cincinnati teenager Jessica Logan committed suicide after a nude photo she sent to a boyfriend got into the hands of other students at her high school, leading to harassment from classmates.
Her death resulted in passage of the Jessica Logan Act in the Ohio Legislature in January 2012. It requires Ohio schools to expand bullying policies to include harassment and intimidation sent electronically, and it requires schools to send parents an annual bullying policy statement.
A Lifetime network movie titled “Sexting in Suburbia” emotionally illustrated the trauma that a family can experience when a child sexts.
But Wildman said one of the biggest problems is trying to make local teens understand that sexting is a crime punishable by the same law that makes it illegal for an adult to possess and disseminate child pornography.
“If a 15-year-old girl sends pictures of her breasts to a 15-year-old boy, that is pandering obscenity,” Wildman said. Pandering obscenity is a felony offense that can carry jail time and can lead to classification as a sex offender.
The receiver of the photo can also be charged with pandering obscenity if he or she does more than delete the image, Wildman said.
“They think it’s a harmless thing, but what they don’t realize is what they are doing is pandering obscenity,” Wildman said, adding that even children with bright futures, who are on the honor roll and in the National Honor Society, “get wrapped up in it.”
NOT A LOT IN YOUNGSTOWN
Detective Sgt. David Lomax, of the Youngstown Police Department juvenile division, said he has not seen a lot of problems with sexting and juveniles. He could recall only one recent situation where detectives were called upon to investigate a sexting case.
“We just don’t seem to get a lot of that,” said Lomax.
Youngstown police do keep an eye out for sexting among young people and will take necessary steps, including confiscating electronic devices and legal action.
“If we see any cases like that, we will definitely take it seriously and seek appropriate charges,” said Lomax.
The problem with sexting is that even though the sender may think the picture is going to only one person, the Internet is not private. Once images are sent, there’s no telling where they could end up, including into the hands of sexual predators, Wildman said.
Cases involving sexting by juveniles are handled through the Trumbull County Family and Juvenile Court, and its proceedings are not public, so the public hasn’t heard much about it, Wildman said. That may be one reason kids don’t realize the seriousness of it, he said, adding that he is looking now at the best way to offer educational sessions for teens.
As for the seriousness of the punishment for sexting, Wildman declined to discuss specifics but noted that there are a “variety of diversion programs” that a judge can order instead of jail time.
Wildman said Watkins was “forward looking” to create the Child Porn and Cyber Abuse Unit. Changes in technology have made it easier for people to commit child-pornography offenses.
“Child porn used to be a guy with Polaroids in a shoe box, but today it’s so much easier. Today there’s a whole underworld of this online,” he said.
VICIOUS ACTS AGAINST KIDS
Watkins said last year one reason for the unit was to combat “more bizarre and vicious acts against children.”
He pointed to the 2008 conviction of Timothy Gaut, 34, of of Hubbard as an example of a growing type of sex crime. Gaut was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison after an Internet sting was conducted by the Fairfax County (Va.) Police Department’s Internet Sex Crimes Against Children Task Force and a federal officer.
Officers posed as a stepfather and an 11-year-old girl on an Internet chat room. Gaut said he wanted to perform sex acts on the 11-year-old.
During the chats, Gaut sent video of himself engaging in sexual conduct with a 6-year-old girl. Gaut was convicted of charges related to the video, as well as crimes related to assaults on the girl in the months and years before that.
Though some agencies and schools may not view sexting as a serious crime, Wildman said he wants to “know about all of them,” so he can file charges, even if they are lesser ones related to unruly children rather than the felony-level pandering offenses.
Mike Currington, a Warren police detective, said he has investigated more than one case in which criminals have recorded their crime, such as a Warren couple that used a cellphone to tape the rape of their child in 2011.
“If we buy a ‘57 Chevy and restore it, we take accomplishment in that. Unfortunately there are those who take pride in stealing that ‘57 Chevy,” Currington said. “It’s people keeping up with technology.”
As for sexting, Currington said it appears to be fairly common, but he hasn’t investigated a lot of these cases. His work generally deals more with adults involved with child pornography, he said.
CSB BANS CELLPHONES
Tim Schaffner, executive director of Trumbull County Children’s Services, said the agency gets sexting referrals from parents and schools. But since they generally don’t involve the neglect or abuse of a child, the agency usually refers them to police or parents.
The agency banned the use of cellphones and other recording devices in its visitation rooms at the agency in 2011 after Cody Beemer, 22, and his wife, Felicia Beemer, 21, raped their biological daughter inside one of the rooms and recorded the acts on cellphone video.
The policy changed before he worked at the agency, but Schaffner said one reason for the change was to prevent a visitor from providing access to the child to anyone not authorized to have that access. For instance, a visitor might use a cell phone to allow a conversation or video chat between the child and someone else, he said.
Furthermore, preventing the use of electronic devices puts the “focus on the child” during the visit.
Schaffner, 60, said he grew up with face-to- face interaction with people and has concerns about how technology has affected interpersonal communications.
Schaffner said he believes parents should consider putting limits on the amount of access their kids have in their bedroom to computers, televisions and other electronics, saying they are better kept in a shared space, where they can encourage interaction.
Contributor: Staff writer John W. Goodwin Jr.