'We are just getting started': The fight against child exploitation in Northeast Florida

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Northeast Florida law enforcement officers and local leaders recently announced the first-year findings of the Northeast Florida Inter-Agency Child Exploitation and Persons Trafficking Task Force (NEFL INTERCEPT).

The NEFL INTERCEPT is public/private partnership working at local, state and federal levels. Agencies involved include Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Jacksonville; the sheriffs' offices of St. Johns; Clay; Putnam; Nassau; and Duval counties; the U.S. Attorney’s Office; the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE); and nonprofit organizations.

Nonprofits, such as Operation Light Shine and the Tim Tebow Foundation, provide resources to NEFL INTERCEPT Task Force members fighting human trafficking and child exploitation.

According to a statement issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, human traffickers target the vulnerable and use force, fraud or coercion to obtain labor or commercial sex acts.

“They sexually exploit children from online enticement to distributing child sexual abuse material, sextortion and sharing photos or videos,” they said. “Offenders who traffic these photos and video files across the internet and dark web re-victimize the child each time the images of their abuse are shared.”

During a recent press conference hosted by Sheriff Robert Hardwick and the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Attorney for Florida's Middle District, Roger Handberg, underscored his appreciation for the collaborative effort made by the NEFL INTERCEPT Task Force. It has yielded 583 investigations and 85 search warrants served, along with hundreds of related subpoenas for records.

In 2023, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children issued 663 cyber-tips leading NEFL INTERCEPT Task Force members to examine 224 electronic devices (6.3 million images and videos) revealing 75,000 images and videos of child sexual abuse. Thirty-one arrests were made along with 16 indictments and 21 convictions, with 18 of those convicted sentenced to a total of 148 years in prison, including one life sentence.

“My office has had the privilege of working with the Northeast Florida INTERCEPT Task Force to protect victims and bring offenders to justice,” Handberg said. “There’s much that I can say about the dedication of the investigators and prosecutors who tackle these disturbing and often heartbreaking cases. But today I’ll simply say thank you for the hard work that you do.”

“The fight against human trafficking and child exploitation is dangerous, disturbing, and extremely difficult,” said Sheriff Hardwick. “The men and women who represent the INTERCEPT Task Force, who dedicate themselves every day to rescuing victims of human trafficking and child exploitation, are real heroes.”

The INTERCEPT Task Force also assisted regional law enforcement agencies during proactive online chat operations between children. This led to 53 arrests.

“There is more work to be done, and we are just getting started,” said Sheriff Hardwick.

Click here to contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

This article originally appeared on St. Augustine Record: NE Florida fights child exploitation. Here's how the battle is going