By Claudia Lauer and Samantha Hendrickson - The Associated Press
When an Ohio father learned that his 11-year-old daughter had been manipulated into sending explicit photos to an adult, he decided to go to the police for help.
But instead of treating the girl as a victim of crime, an officer threatened to charge her under a law that most people think was designed to protect child victims.
The shocking conversation was recorded last week in audio recorded by police body cameras and on the father's doorbell camera in Columbus, Ohio. The images drew criticism from the public and experts, who said law enforcement officials have long misused laws meant to protect children, threatening them with accusations of being involved in crime.
The entrance to the Columbus Police headquarters in Ohio on Sept. 21, 2023.Patrick Orsagos / AP
According to experts, the incident also demonstrated that officers' training on how to respond to child exploitation cases is flawed and not standard among police departments.
Scott Berkowitz, who is founder and president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, the nation's largest organization against sexual violence, said, "It's been a complete failure on a legal and human level." He added: "I don't know who immediately happens to blame a child in such a situation. It's inconceivable."
It's all too common in a system that's not really designed to help first, but to punish first."
Riya Saha Shah DIRECTOR OF JUVENILE LAW CENTER
In an edited body camera recording obtained by The Associated Press, the father asks if there is anything police can do. An officer is heard responding that her 11-year-old daughter could be charged with creating "child pornography."
The man protests and says he is a girl, a victim who was manipulated by an adult.
"It doesn't matter," the agent replies. "She was the one who created it."
Angry, the father ends the conversation and closes the door. The video, which was posted on TikTok, had been viewed more than 750,000 times as of Thursday.
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Police have not released the father's name. The Associated Press, which does not identify victims of alleged sexual abuse, tried to reach the man through social media and by phone this week but received no response.
Columbus Police Chief Elaine Bryant quickly responded in a statement that the officers' conduct was being investigated and did not meet the division's rules on how to treat victims.
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Andres Antequera, a spokesman for Columbus police, said the agency has a detail-based policy that considers each case individually, but that "the focus is on protecting the child through education, counseling and social services, not criminal charges."
He noted that the department sometimes provides information about those resources to parents, as well as referrals to obtain the
Ohio's law that penalizes children
But Antequera explained that Ohio laws are clear that minors who create, possess or distribute images of child sexual abuse, including of themselves, are violating the law. He said prosecutors ultimately decide when to file charges, but did not respond when asked if Columbus police had detained minors in similar circumstances in the past.
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The Associated Press filed a written request with the Franklin County prosecutor's office seeking information on whether juveniles have been charged under that law, but had not heard back as of Thursday afternoon.
Rebecca Epstein, executive director of the Center for Gender Justice and Opportunity at Georgetown Law, said charges against victims are common. Epstein co-authored a report in April that looked at how survivors of sexual assault and abuse are often criminalized.
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"Girls who are sexually abused are often the ones punished for the sexual abuse they suffer. Instead of being treated as survivors in need of support, they are taken through the channels of the criminal justice system," she said. "Our culture assigns complicity to girls who are too young to even legally consent to sex."
Epstein said minors who are trafficked or coerced into performing sexual acts, or creating or soliciting materials of a sexual nature, can often be charged with crimes.
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In the early 2000s, when phone cameras became popular and sexting entered the national eye, juvenile justice advocates began fighting prosecutors who wanted to charge minors for knowingly sharing explicit images with other minors.
Riya Saha Shah, managing director of the Juvenile Law Center, said the center was part of that advocacy and has continued to raise concerns about sexual exploitation laws being used against child victims.
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"These laws were really meant to prevent the sexual abuse of minors, to protect against the exploitation of children," Shah said. "So to use these laws as a weapon against children to bring charges against them, it really misinterprets the law, and worse, it makes a mockery of the purpose of it."
It's hard to know how many children have been charged, in part because prosecutors can use the charges to obtain pleas for misdemeanors, he explained.
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Shah, who said he also has an 11-year-old daughter, called the police response to a father who was seeking help disappointing, but not surprising.
"There was no investigation into who the individual was who had these images in his possession," Shah said. "They went straight to punish her, which unfortunately is all too common in a system that's not really designed to help first, but to punish first."
Berkowitz said the police officers' interaction with the father reflected the importance of training and the lack of standardized training for interviewing and interacting with child victims of sex crimes.
The Associated Press requested information about the training officers had received in this case and asked why the father's request was not directed to specialized departments of the Columbus Police Division. Authorities had not responded as of Thursday afternoon.
Berkowitz said the potential lack of resources for officer training doesn't justify their behavior.
"This should be something pretty basic, that when an adult abuses a child, everything is done to stop it, not to blame the child," he stressed.