Columbus police suggested charging girl for explicit photos. Experts say it's common practice
When a Columbus father learned that his 11-year-old daughter had been manipulated into sending explicit photos to an adult, he turned to the police for help.
But instead of treating the girl as a crime victim, an officer seemingly threatened to charge her under a law most people view as designed to protect child victims.
The shocking interaction was recorded last week on body camera audio and by the father's doorbell camera in Columbus, Ohio. The footage drew criticism from the public and from experts who said law enforcement officials have long misused laws meant to protect children by threatening to charge them with being part of the same crime.
Experts said the incident also showed that training for officers on how to respond to child exploitation cases is spotty and not standardized between police departments.
“It was a complete fail on a legal level and on a human level,” said Scott Berkowitz, founder and president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network — the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. “I don’t know who immediately goes to blaming a child in a situation like that. It’s inconceivable.”
In the redacted body camera recording obtained by The Associated Press, the father asks if there's anything the police can do. A female officer is heard replying that his 11-year-old could be charged with creating “child porn."
The parent protests that she is a child, a victim who was manipulated by an adult.
“It doesn’t matter," the officer said. "She’s still creating it.”
The angry father ends the conversation and slams the door behind him. The video he posted to TikTok had been watched more than 750,000 times as of Thursday.
Police have not released the father’s name. The AP, which does not identify victims of alleged sexual abuse, reached out to him on social media and by phone this week but did not receive a response.
Columbus Police Chief Elaine Bryant responded quickly in a statement that the officers' conduct was being investigated and that it did not meet the division's standards for how victims should be treated.
Columbus police spokesperson Andrés Antequera said the agency has a nuanced policy that considers each case individually, but that “the focus is to protect the minor through education, counseling and social services, not criminal charges.”
He said the department sometimes provides information on those resources to parents, as well as referrals for services.
But Antequera said Ohio statutes are clear that minors who create, possess or distribute images of child sexual abuse, even of themselves, are violating the law. He said prosecutors ultimately decide when to file charges, but he did not answer when asked whether Columbus police had arrested minors under similar circumstances in the past.
The AP filed a written request with the Franklin County prosecuting attorney's office seeking information on whether minors have been charged under the statute, but had not received a response as of Thursday afternoon.
Rebecca Epstein, the executive director of the Center on Gender Justice and Opportunity at Georgetown Law, said charges against victims are common. Epstein co-authored a report in April looking at how survivors of sexual assault and abuse are often criminalized.
“Girls who experience sexual abuse are often the ones who are punished for the sexual abuse that they experience. Rather than being treated as survivors who need support, they are funneled into the criminal justice system," she said. “Our culture assigns complicity to girls who are too young to legally even consent to sex.”
Epstein said minors who are trafficked or coerced into sexual acts or into creating or soliciting sexual materials can often be charged with crimes.
In the early 2000s, as cellphone cameras became common and “sexting” entered the national vernacular, juvenile justice advocates began fighting against prosecutors who wanted to charge minors for consensually sharing explicit images with other minors.
Riya Saha Shah, the senior 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.
“These laws were really intended to prevent sexual abuse of children, to protect against the exploitation of children,” Shah said. “So weaponizing these laws against children to bring charges against them really misunderstands the law, and even worse, is flouting the law’s purpose.”
It's hard to know how many children are charged, partly because prosecutors can use the charges to elicit guilty pleas to lesser offenses, she said.
Shah, who said she also has an 11-year-old daughter, called the police response to a parent seeking help disappointing but not surprising.
“There was no investigation into who the individual was who has these images in their possession,” Shah said. “It went right to punishing her, which unfortunately is all too common in a system that really isn't designed to help first, but rather to punish first.”
Berkowitz said the interaction reflected the importance of training and the scarcity of standardized training for interviewing and interacting with child victims of sexual crimes.
The AP requested information on any training the responding officers had received, and asked why the father's call was not directed to specialized departments within the Columbus Division of Police, but police had not responded as of Thursday afternoon.
Berkowitz said a possible lack of training resources doesn’t excuse the officers’ behavior.
“This should be pretty basic stuff that when an adult abuses a child, you do everything you can to stop it, not to blame the child,” he said.