Protecting Virginia's Children

By Betty Wade Coyle
Daily Press [Virginia]
July 8, 2006,0,3771118.story?coll=

Anyone who has tuned in to NBC's "Dateline" in the past several months, has been exposed to one of the freakiest reality shows ever. It is a series called "To Catch a Predator," and for those who missed the stories the first time around, a recap of the shows is available on the network's Web site.

The basic premise of the show is to use trained adult decoys to lure sexual predators via the Internet to a house to have a sexual liaison with a young teen. When they arrive at the "home" of the intended victim, the show host, Chris Hansen, confronts them with a barrage of questions while the cameras are rolling. And the perpetrators come in droves - 18 men to a home outside New York City; 19 men to a Washington, D.C., suburb; 50 men in Southern California; 18 men in Greenville, Ohio; and 24 men in Fort Myers, Fla.

Even scarier, these criminals are not the sleazy guys in the trench coats we expect to see. While a few were registered sex offenders, most were not. Most were regular people that we and our children see every day. Teachers, youth workers, firefighters, a doctor and even a rabbi were caught up in this sting. Many perpetrators had children of their own, and one man even brought his 5-year-old son with him to the anticipated rendezvous.

Thankfully, the Virginia state legislature has not been deadlocked over creating an aggressive legal response to child molestation. As of July 1, Virginia has some of the toughest sentences in the nation for sexual predators. We should commend the bipartisan coalition led by Attorney General Bob McDonnell and state Sen. Ken Stolle that pushed this legislative package through the General Assembly.

But we should not grow complacent, thinking harsh sanctions will prevent sexual predators from preying on our children. Anyone who has watched the "Dateline" series, has learned that these people have a sickness that won't go away and a boldness that defies reason.

Tough laws are just the beginning in this fight to save our children. More police and prosecution resources will be needed as well. With harsher sanctions, perpetrators will fight convictions more vigorously and be less likely to plea bargain.

With higher stakes, the commonwealth will need airtight cases in order to prevail. More child victims will have to testify in court, face their perpetrators and the aggressive questioning of the defense attorneys. But even more critical, prosecutors will need more than just the word of the child if they are to convict the perpetrators. They will need evidence to corroborate the child's testimony. Search warrants will have to be executed in a timely fashion to collect computers, recordings and other evidence, in order to better substantiate the charges.

Common sense and good policing should dictate that if a child discloses the existence of hard evidence - a computer, videotape, sex toy, or residue from sexual activity - then a search warrant should be obtained and executed before the alleged perpetrator is alerted to the charges and given a chance to dispose of the evidence. But this requires resources and special expertise that are scarce commodities in many of our localities.

Anecdotal evidence in Hampton Roads courts would suggest that many child sexual abuse cases are not being prosecuted because the child is either too young or there is simply not enough corroborating evidence. Too frequently, the police interview the child and then try to get the perpetrator to confess; but with no confession, it leaves the commonwealth with too weak a case to carry to court.

The attorney general has assembled a task force bringing together policymakers, law enforcement officials, educators, corporate executives from Internet companies, and concerned parents to study child safety and the Internet. Thoughtful, reality-based proposals from this task force can give direction to the General Assembly. It will be the task of that body to find the needed resources to enable the commonwealth to take the next steps to ensure that the new laws are enforced vigorously and effectively.

Our innocent children will not be safe until these heinous offenders are locked away for a long, long time.

Coyle is executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Hampton Roads. Send e-mail to


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