WASHINGTON — Rep. Todd Rokita’s voice quavered as he closed a congressional hearing this week on the abduction and sex trafficking of children.
“My blood boils,” said the Indiana Republican, a parent himself, “when you gave an example of how a child can be delivered to a hotel room as easily as ordering a pizza. Protecting children has been and must remain a national priority.”
Rokita, chairman of a House Education and the Workforce panel, was speaking to witness John Ryan, CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Though the Missing Children’s Assistance Act was reauthorized last year, advocates say more can be done, especially as technology plays a larger role in such cases. In his testimony Tuesday, Ryan urged Congress to recognize the evolving threat of social media and technology in aiding pimps and predators who target vulnerable kids.
“The Internet has transformed life in many positive ways,” said Ryan, who for 17 years served as senior vice president and deputy general counsel at AOL, Inc., overseeing Internet crimes against children. “But it has also fostered an explosion of child pornography…traded amongst offenders from all walks of life.”
The center, a nonprofit based in nearby Alexandria, Va., serves as a national clearinghouse for information on missing and sexually exploited children. For instance: one out of every seven endangered runaways is involved in sex trafficking, according to the center. It has received $40 million in federal money and has aided in the recovery 160,000 children since 1984 when it was created through partnerships with law enforcement, states and school districts.
Ryan wants Congress to do more. Teaching about sex trafficking danger signs should be standardized in schools, and social service agencies should be required to report missing child cases to the federal government, he said. Currently, Florida and Illinois are the only states that require those agencies to do so. They require the data to be sent to the missing and exploited children center as well. More than 4,000 cases were reported in the last year.
Ryan said expanding federally mandated reporting to all 50 states would allow law enforcement to intervene sooner by tracking trends to find where an abducted child might have been taken.
The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.