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Child sex abuse: Operation Sunflower highlights new efforts to get predators

Some 245 people accused of exploiting and abusing children have been arrested, US officials announced this week. Operation Sunflower also removed 44 victims from homes where their abusers also lived.

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The same day this week that Immigration and Customs Enforcement  announced the arrests of 245 people accused of exploiting and abusing children, a tip alerted authorities to arrest one more suspect: a woman in Los Angeles whom law enforcement had identified in photos posted online that allegedly show her sexually molesting a girl thought to be 13 years old. The photos date back to 2001 and were discovered by ICE field agents in Chicago in 2007.

Such is the complex effort that goes into pursuing online sexual predators who rely on computer technology to produce and distribute images of their abuse and are becoming more adept at hiding their identities.

Concentrated over a five-week period in November and early December, Operation Sunflower was a “surge operation” in which agents were encouraged to “really get down and look at who is in those photos,” says Danielle Bennett, a spokeswoman for ICE in Washington. The increased effort resulted in finding 123 victims. Of that total, 44 were found living with their abusers and subsequently were removed from the homes. The others were exploited outside their own homes or are now adults.

Law enforcement officials at the federal, state, and local levels have been turning to what they call “forensic technology” to track and identify both predators and their victims. The effort to focus on minute details of photos or videos and rely on global databases to establish trends or locations has yielded more arrests. The number of child predators arrested by ICE last year totaled 1,655, a record number for the agency and an 81 percent increase from 2010.

In Operation Sunflower, whose results were announced Thursday, the majority of the victims were female, and most victims were between 13 and 15 years old. However, five victims were under the age of 3, and 30 were between 4 and 9 years old.

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