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GAO Critical of DOJ Leadership and Strategy on Protecting Children from Online Exploitation

Reports of suspected child sexual exploitation increased 35 percent from 2020 to 2021, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

In 2008, Congress required the Department of Justice (DOJ) to create and implement a national strategy to combat the exploitation of children. The strategy must be updated every two years, led by an appointed senior official, and include 19 specific elements, such as setting measurable goals.

But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that in the past 14 years, nine detailees have rotated through the national coordinator position; DOJ has only issued a strategy twice; and hasn’t updated it since 2016 to address advances in technology, like encryption, that make it harder to catch online predators preying on children.

The volume, complexity, and danger of sexual exploitation of children online are increasing, and have been fueled by conditions created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Reports of suspected child sexual exploitation increased 35 percent from 2020 to 2021, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. To address this alarming trend, federal agencies have efforts underway to combat online exploitation of children. These efforts include task forces, technology innovation, training, and public awareness campaigns.

Congress passed the PROTECT Our Children Act of 2008 which, among other things, required the Attorney General to issue a National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction. The Act further required the strategy to be issued one year after enactment and updated every two years thereafter. However, DOJ has issued its strategy twice—in 2010 and 2016.

GAO found that DOJ has not met a number of the requirements of the 2008 Act, due in part to it not making the strategy a priority. For example, although required by law, the department did not designate a senior management official to lead the strategy’s development. Instead, DOJ rotated detailees through the position of national coordinator, and nine national coordinator detailees have held the position in the last 13 years. Further, the most recent 2016 strategy did not fully include 12 of the 19 required elements established in law, such as setting targets to accomplish quantifiable goals. Moreover, the strategy is not up-to-date on key technology advances that are making it more difficult to catch perpetrators. Addressing these issues is essential to providing assurance that an overall strategy is helping to guide the many efforts focused on protecting our children.

The government watchdog is recommending that the Attorney General ensure the department updates the National Strategy to fully address all statutory requirements, including appointment of a senior official, inclusion of all 19 statutory elements for the strategy, and issuance of the strategy every two years. GAO stated that DOJ has neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation.

Read the full report at GAO

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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