Progress has been made in combating a once mostly ignored aspect of child exploitation: the use of children in pornography.
But the battle is far from over, according to federal, state, and local investigators and others interviewed by the Monitor. Changes are needed in laws. And parents, too, can help by being more alert to their children's activities, these sources say.
Child pornography, investigators say, is a form of sexual abuse of children, and the adult secretly involved may even be a respected community leader or member of the child's family.
Two subsequent articles will examine law enforcement efforts against child pornography and ways families, teachers, and others can help prevent and resolve instances of sexual exploitation of children.
During the mid-1970s, the issue of sexual exploitation of children -- boys and girls -- began to draw national attention in the news media. Soon after, Congress held hearings and passed several laws aimed at curbing the use of children in pornography and interstate travel for sexual purposes.
Since then child pornography, once available in many adult bookstores across the United States, has virtually disappeared from the shelves, according to federal and local law enforcement officials. Even the amount of imported child pornography mailed directly to customers has declined, according to US officials.
But the issue is far from settled. In two recent raids -- in Los Angeles and North Syracuse, N.Y. -- police seized vast amounts of pornographic films and photos depicting children. Mailing lists of thousands of customers were found.
And the decline noted in child pornography entering the US from abroad may be due to fewer inspectors and higher priorities in the US Customs Service, one official says.
Even with the decline in detected child pornography from abroad, some 247,000 pieces of pornography were seized by Customs during the last four years, of which 60 to 70 percent contained at least some child pornography, Robert Schaffer, director of Customs' Office of Inspections, told a congressional subcommittee in April.
But there is another aspect to the child pornography issue that is limiting investigations. It has to do with how the material is produced and distributed.
When the federal laws and most state laws were passed several years ago, their targets were the people who produced and distributed child pornography for profit. While those laws appear to have driven commercially produced child pornography off the adult-bookstore shelves, they have done little to stop the homemade kind.
Investigators are increasingly convinced that this homemade version now constitutes the bulk of child pornography in the US. The material is often traded among ''collectors'' rather than sold for a profit.
Although federal statutes on interstate distribution of pornography would apply to this homemade material, the specific statutes passed to crack down on child pornography do not do so, because no commerical gain is involved. And most state laws are modeled after the federal law.
Amendments are being considered in Congress to remove the for-profit clauses in the federal child pornography statutes.
But the number of police departments around the country with child pornography units is less than a handful. And, though most departments in larger cities have a vice unit, seldom does anyone in those units investigate child pornography, according to some of the few police who do.
With limited investigations, there are no reliable estimates of how many children are exploited in pornography. Neither is it clear whether the number of victims is changing.
According to a report by the General Accounting Office, state officials see an increase in the number of children involved in pornography over the last five years. City and police officials estimate the number has remained fairly constant.
Indianapolis has a full-time child pornography investigator on the police force. The investigator, Sgt. Tom Rodgers, gives an estimate on the scope of the problem: ''We have estimated there are probably 500 children being molested (sexually) daily in a city of our size. Probably 200 of these are being molested and photographed.''
What are the ages of the children used in child pornography? The GAO report said studies show that usually the age ranges from 8 to 16, but sometimes younger children are involved.
Nationally there are few prevention programs aimed at educating children in how to avoid or detect situations in which they are being sexually abused or exploited. Next: Legal efforts to crack down on child pornograghy