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Funding Sought to Fight Online Predators

February 6, 2010

By Nicole Fisher
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In 2002, 13-year-old Alicia Kozakiewicz was kidnapped by a man she met online. He locked her in a cage in his Virginia townhouse, raped and tortured her, and even webcast images of his captive before police rescued her.

Kozakiewicz’s horrifying ordeal prompted Virginia and other states to enact Alicia’s Law, a law enforcement effort to crack down on sexual predators on the Internet.

This past week, Kozakiewicz – now a student at the University of Pennsylvania – returned to Virginia to urge the General Assembly to guarantee funding for programs that protect children from online predators.

“I’d much rather have introduced myself as the Ivy kid and tell you that it’s ‘OK, I’m fine now,’ ” Kozakiewicz said. “But I can’t, because victimization affects you forever. And yet I’m here. Once more, I stand before you, asking – no, pleading, begging – for sustained Alicia’s Law funding.”

She spoke at a Capitol press conference called by four state legislators who want to provide a steady source of funding for Virginia’s task forces that target “Internet crimes against children.”

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“Every year, we have to fight to keep funding” the ICAC investigative units, said Sen. Creigh Deeds, last year’s unsuccessful Democratic nominee for governor.

He was joined by three Republican lawmakers: House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith of Salem, Delegate David Albo of Fairfax and Sen. Frederick Quayle of Suffolk.

Also at Wednesday’s news conference was Ed Smart, the father of Elizabeth Smart, who in 2002 was abducted from the family’s home in Utah and held captive for nine months.

As president of the Surviving Parents Coalition, Ed Smart has fought on the federal level for the Amber Alert program, the Adam Walsh Act and the Protect Our Children Act of 2008.

Smart said he is amazed when he hears other parents saying that such a crime could never happen to their children.

“But it does,” he said. “And unfortunately, a lot of us don’t get the picture until the next trauma happens or until it’s our child or our neighbors’ child.”

Virginia started an Alicia’s Law program in 2008 by setting up two ICAC task forces. Legislators approved a budget amendment that allocated more than $1.5 million for such investigations.

At the time, law enforcement officials estimated that 20,000 computers in Virginia contained hardcore child pornography – but that they had the resources to investigate only 2 percent of the state’s child pornographers and predators.

Since then, Griffith said, the ICAC task forces have made substantial progress against online sexual predators.

“Virginia’s two ICACs have increased their identification and interdiction of Internet child predators by almost 600 percent, resulting in dozens of child victims being identified and rescued from horrific abuse, and the arrest of hundreds of predators,” Griffith said.

But funding the task forces has been a struggle – especially this year, when the General Assembly faces a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall.

Deeds and Griffith have submitted budget amendments that would establish a dedicated funding stream for the ICAC task forces.

Senate Bill 620, sponsored by Deeds, would impose a $10 fee on all felony and misdemeanor convictions, with the money going to the task forces. The Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted 11-2 to endorse the proposal; it’s now before the Senate Finance Committee.

Albo is sponsoring a bill that would help Virginia keep better track of Internet crimes against children. House Bill 736 calls for the State Police and circuit courts to report information into a database called the Virginia Child Protection Accountability System. Quayle is sponsoring an identical bill in the Senate – SB 284.

“We have, I would consider, probably in place right now, the toughest laws in the United States on these types of crimes, and we are aiming to make them even tougher,” Albo said.

Alicia’s Law was drafted by PROTECT, a national association that fights crimes against children.

Camille Cooper, director of legislative affairs for PROTECT, said the government shows its priorities by how it spends money. She said it is “unacceptable” for the state to spend $22 million on the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts when children are being abused day after day.

“These bills, the budget amendments and the Child Protection Accountability System will not live or die in this General Assembly session based on politics. They’re going to live or die based on priorities,” Cooper said. “We need to make sure that the work that these ICACs do is a priority both economically and legislatively.”

Kozakiewicz was solemn but firm as she addressed the press conference.

“The million-dollar question that each of you must ask yourself today and most of your legislators is not and has never been ‘Why do these horrible things happen?’ but rather ‘Why do I permit them to continue?'” Kozakiewicz said.

“Your children’s lives – the money to save them. You decide.”


This story was published by such CNS clients as WPCVA.com and the Williamsburg-Yorktown Daily.