293 – Investigating Child Exploitation, with Erin Burke


Dr. Sandie Morgan is joined by Erin Burke from Homeland Security to discuss federal investigations into child exploitation crimes. They discuss the public-private partnership between HSI and NCMEC, the difference between child exploitation and human trafficking, and the rise of sextortion amongst our youth.

Erin Burke

Erin Burke is the Unit Chief for the Child Exploitation Investigations Unit (CEIU) at Cyber Crime Center (C3) with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). CEIU is comprised of three sections, the Victim Identification Lab, Intake and Operations, and Angel Watch. As a Special Agent, Erin has worked investigations related to child exploitation, human trafficking, national security, transnational narcotics, gangs, and financial crimes for over fifteen years. Erin earned a master’s degree in Forensic Science from The George Washington University.

Key Points

  • The Child Exploitation Investigations Unit (CEIU) is the primary unit addressing child exploitation within HSI and partnering with other law enforcement around the world.
  • Sextortion is becoming a growing trend in exploiting children for sexually explicit images and money.
  • Kids are growing up in a digital age which requires us to understand the technology kids use and create safety barriers to protect them.
  • Child exploitation is sexual abuse against a child perpetrated by a trusted individual.
  • Child sex trafficking is the sexual exploitation of a child for monetary gain.
  • NCMEC is the national clearinghouse for child exploitation and partners with federal agencies to investigate child exploitation crimes.


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Sandra Morgan  00:00

You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode 293, Investigating Child Exploitation, with Erin Burke.

Sandra Morgan  00:27

Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. And for many of you in our last episode, you learned that my founding co-host, Dave Stachowiak, has sent me out of the nest solo and this is my first solo hosts to podcast. So, I am especially delighted to have such an amazing guest today. Erin Burke is unit chief for Child Exploitation Investigations at the Cyber Crime Center, Homeland Security Investigations. And she is an amazing and diligent investigator. She has, as a special agent, worked investigations related to child exploitation, human trafficking, national security, transnational narcotics, gangs, and financial crimes for over 15 years. Erin has a master’s degree in forensic science from The George Washington University. Thank you so much for joining us today, Erin.

Erin Burke  01:53

Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here today and to talk to you.

Sandra Morgan  01:57

So tell us, first of all, what the Child Exploitation Investigations Unit at Cyber Crime Center, also known as C3, what does it do?

Erin Burke  02:11

So the Child Exploitation Investigations Unit, I might also refer to it as CEIU, is basically Homeland Security Investigations headquarters element that focuses on all types of child exploitation and abuse crimes. So we are comprised of three units, there’s intake investigations, and that unit is where we work with our domestic and international partners to actually work on cases and large scale operations to combat predators online. The other section is Angel Watch. And that is an initiative that we have to basically protect the world’s children. So it’s an initiative where we have to make sure that individuals who are leaving the United States with the intent to harm and abuse children elsewhere, that we can target them and prosecute them as necessary. Then our third is the victim identification lab. And this is a cutting edge laboratory, our main mission is to identify and rescue children of abuse and exploitation. So they use some really amazing technology combined with traditional investigative tools to focus on finding those kids who are being abused, and their images are posted online, who are being abused, and they’re being caused to travel around the country, they’re going to focus on identifying who those kids are, rescuing them, identifying the predators and putting them in jail as well. So really, we’re a one stop shop for all things child exploitation for Homeland Security Investigations, and for all of our partners around the world.

Sandra Morgan  03:40

Wow, all three of those sections could be a single podcast. But let’s start with the victim identification lab. What happens when you find out a child is being exploited online?

Erin Burke  03:56

So I’ll start because a lot of people come in not really knowing what I’m saying when I say child exploitation. And it’s really important to understand what’s happening. So when we talk about these crimes, we’re talking about a couple different areas, but primarily talking about children who are physically sexually abused, often by a loved one, trusted individual in their life. And those predators then take images and videos of the actual abuse, then they share them online. They post them to forums, they share them with other predators, they share them in a myriad of ways. So, A, that’s one side of what we do. There’s another huge trending issue is the sextortion. So it’s a little bit different from our traditional child exploitation and child sexual abuse cases. So predators have been meeting kids online for a long time, it all falls under child exploitation, but it’s getting worse. So this is where predators are meeting children online and they are basically coercing them. They’re gaining their trust, oftentimes, most of the time by deceit. They’re pretending that they’re a boy or a girl that that victim would be interested in. They’re very good at exploiting the child’s social media to know what they’re looking for. So then the predator gets that child’s trust and friendship, and then often asks for explicit images, and it starts slow, but it can escalate very quickly. So then they get these compromising images of these children. And then it turns into that exploitation, so then they threaten, coerce, do all of these terrible things to have the child do other things. So traditionally, it would just be they would coerce them and threaten to show these pictures to their friends and their parents and their school and all of that, for something. That something may either be for the child to produce more images, to do things, do other sexually explicit things, to meet up in person. And now this new financially based extortion is they’re coercing these children and exploiting them in order to get money. So they’re causing them to send money, buy gift cards, do different things. So it’s a big huge area. But the victim ID lab gets leads like this from our international partners, from our domestic offices, if they understand that during the forensics of a case, they come upon an unknown image of a child that we’re going to try to find it and a huge amount of what we do comes from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. They’re the national clearinghouse for a lot of these images. And we work directly with them to help identify and solve some of these cases.

Sandra Morgan  06:26

Wow! Okay. So you use the word coerce and trust in the same sentence, and how these kids meet someone online and they trust them because why?

Erin Burke  06:42

So it’s a couple of things. Kids today, unlike everybody who are listening, we didn’t grow up making friends online. That’s kind of a foreign thought to us. Kids are very trusting. Their brains aren’t fully developed oftentimes by when they’re online and when they’re doing this. They’re looking for those friendships. And they truly believe that you can form a friendship online and it’s genuine. So a lot of it’s just this generational difference, that being online to them is very similar to being in person. Kids today spend their days FaceTiming and chatting and snapping, and all these different things online with their best friends. So something in their brain can equate it to, well, if I meet them online and we connect we can still be really close friends. There are adults that this happens to as well. Adults are victims of these kinds of extortion schemes as well. Kids just seem to be more susceptible. Because A, they want those friendships. To a lot of kids, the more friends you have on your social media platform means the more popular you are. So to them, this is how they make friendships in today’s age. And the one thing I will say which will set this world a little bit apart from the human trafficking victims that we’ve dealt with, the individuals, the children who are being exposed and targeted for this sextortion is everybody. It is from rich to poor, from rural to city, its kids are all online. I mean, everyone has access to the internet, and they all want to make friends and they all have social media. So it’s a huge victim pool for these predators to go after.

Sandra Morgan  08:18

Okay, so two things to follow up on here. With regard to their brains aren’t done, last week our Surgeon General here in the U.S. made a statement that 13 is too young for social media. What’s your response to that?

Erin Burke  08:35

It’s funny. It’s a hard question. So I agree that a huge amount of our child exploitation problem in the world would be helped–not solved, because bad people will still do bad things–will be helped if we didn’t have kids on social media. But this is the world we live in. So it’s not realistic that kids aren’t going to be on social media before that. And it’s only getting earlier and earlier. We see elementary aged kids having phones and with some limited access to different things. So I think we have to understand that this is the world we live in and how do we catch up with the technology and make it safer.

Sandra Morgan  09:16

Okay, I like that answer because it’s so reasonable and more doable, especially for parents. And parents have, for a long time felt like when their kids are in a nice, safe place and everybody is doing well, they’re not in a compromised situation. Their kids are relatively safe. They’re not in that vulnerable population. But what you’re saying is everybody’s kid is vulnerable now. And when you talk about this in the context of sexual exploitation and human trafficking, what’s the legal line of demarcation there?

Erin Burke  09:55

So that’s where it’s always like this fine line. With this new sextortion that’s financially-based does blur those lines a little bit. But traditionally, the child exploitation side of the house is really sexual abuse that is caused by trusted individuals. And yes, that also goes down the road of predators who are online, and then they coerce these children, they meet them in person, and then it still falls under child exploitation. When we go over to the human trafficking side, we’re talking about underage children who are forced into commercial prostitution. And again, there’s also the labor side of the house. But that’s kind of a whole separate topic. And those individuals are very different. The predator type is very different. The people involved in human trafficking, it’s a financial motivation, they are harming and exploiting these children for this commercial gain, for these commercial sex acts. Tn the child exploitation side of the house, in most cases– again, there’s always exceptions–the motivation is not a financial motivation. Again, I asterik that with other than the financial sextortion. But traditionally, the bulk of what we’re seeing for child exploitation, it is for the enjoyment of it, of the predator. They enjoy abusing and exploiting these children. When it comes to a predator who’s a true pedophile and is exploiting thiese children, they have a type, they have a type. They’re often interested in a certain thing, and I hate to throw this out there, it sounds terrible, but they could be interested in prepubescent boys, or pre-teen boys or girls. And the other side with human trafficking, they’re going to manipulate and coerce and exploit anybody they can who’s going to make them money. So does that explain the difference pretty well?

Sandra Morgan  11:44

Yeah, yeah, that’s really helpful. Because of course, we understand exploitation as a part of commercial sexual exploitation of adults and of children. And so understanding this fine line is really helpful as we try to build more protections into the community education for especially families, parents, teachers, community leaders that deal with children. And so your partnership with NCMEC that you mentioned is twofold. And talk about how you partner with them from an investigative side and then let’s talk about how we as a community partner with them for prevention.

Erin Burke  12:33

Absolutely. So NCMEC is a phenomenal partner. They are the federal clearing house, basically, the clearing house for the United States. They have their tipline out there, and they’re always out in the media, so they’re very well known. When U.S. based companies and some foreign companies, when they find illegal material on their platforms, they are required by law to send that material and to report it. And basically, NCMEC takes in all those referrals. So millions of referrals, I’m sure you can look online, and it’s millions and millions of referrals each year, and it’s only getting higher and higher and expanding crazy. So they take them in, they triage them, they deconflict them, and they basically take a look at that–

Sandra Morgan  13:13

Stop! I’m the man on the street, helping my listeners. So what do you mean deconflict?

Erin Burke  13:20

Alright, so what that means is, we send those images to NCMEC, they take those images and run them against all their fancy databases, and they basically give us a report as an investigator. It’s a document that’s basically used in court to say, there’s so many identified victims. And what that means is, if I submitted a report that had 100 images on it to NCMEC, they would come back, and so there’s 100 images of children on there, they will come back and say, okay, 80 of those images are known child exploitation material. So you can use those for prosecution. They’re known images, they’re illegal, it’s proven through a myriad of ways. 10 of those images are known child exploitation material and the child has not been identified. So all those other 80 we know who the child is, they’re safe, we don’t even have to worry about it. We just don’t have to stress out about it. Well, 10 of those, we’ve seen the images before, which means those images have been floating around the internet. And they’ve been sent to NCMEC by other law enforcement agencies or private companies or private citizens. Those are important because those children are still they haven’t been rescued yet. We need to find them. And then they come back and say but that last 10, they haven’t been seen before and we have rescued that child. We’ve never seen it which means that abuse is new and ongoing and becomes extremely important. So that’s the kind of cases that we take at the victim ID lab. So we work directly with NCMEC to say, they’re like this is an active ongoing, very new case, this child’s brand new, brand new abuse, we need to get them out of harm’s way. So then the victim ID lab does their magic and we work to identify and rescue those children. So on the flip side of that, when we do rescue a child in any of our investigations, we also submit that information to the National Center, so that they can kind of have that in their database to say, hey, this child has been rescued, and we’re good to go. It just gives the investigators the help to know which cases to focus on. Does that make sense?

Sandra Morgan  15:23

Yes, that’s so good. And it really demonstrates the value of public-private partnerships. So okay, now, I’m just my brain is on fire here. And I’m thinking about how important it is to have those kinds of system-based partnerships that are so broad and wide. When I meet someone who’s doing investigation in the private sector, and there are at least a dozen nonprofits that pop into my mind, how can I evaluate the quality of their investigations? Because if people are trusting in those kinds of investigations don’t have access to all of that, is there a way for them to be more responsible, be more informed, find a different path or what? I’m not sure?

Erin Burke  16:27

Yeah, that’s actually a great question. Here’s the thing. There’s so many nonprofits out there doing some amazing work, a lot of the nonprofits that are fighting on the technical side, they’re trying to create tools and trying to do things to help law enforcement–that’s invaluable. Same thing with those who are providing services to the victims. That obviously is the number one thing that that’s why we do what we do, we’re victim centered. We want to save the kids first, that’s invaluable. There are other organizations who are in I say, quote, unquote, investigating. And I think it’s all out of the good of their own hearts, which is great, because they want to save kids. But it’s hard, it’s a fine line that if you’re not law enforcement, if you’re not sanctioned to do these investigations, sometimes the evidence that’s gathered by a non-government, non-law enforcement won’t ever be able to be used in court, and it could hamper the actual investigations that are going on. So I always caution working with those organizations that are out there doing actual kind of law enforcement work, that we need to be really careful, we need to set very strict parameters of how we can work together so that we can all achieve the goal in the end of rescue and prosecution. Because, like I said, number one, we always want to rescue that child. But number two, we want to put that predator in jail so there aren’t more victims throughout their lifetime.

Sandra Morgan  17:49

So describe some of those parameters. I’ve been approached by somebody who says we’re doing this better than blah, blah, blah, what am I looking for to evaluate?

Erin Burke  18:02

Okay. Thank you for that clarification. So let’s revisit NCMEC, because I have like their last report of 40 some million image files. And I know, it’s even more than that now. How can our community engage with NCMEC to build a more resilient response? Better barriers? I’m not sure but things that we might even call actual prevention.

Erin Burke  18:02

One of the main things that I’ve seen is a lot of private companies can get data and information by paying for it, which again, is totally legal, everything’s legal for them to do that. And they can push boundaries that the U.S. government can’t. Everything the U.S. government needs to get that data, we need official court orders, subpoenas, summonses, search warrants, that’s how we have to get it. So if someone provided us with a bunch of data and information that was great for making probable cause, basically, to say that this predator did ABC and D, we have to ask where it came from. And if it didn’t come from a legally provided source, then that’s really slippery for us. It’s a slippery slope, prosecutors, judges do not like that. So the other side of that is, if you get all this information from a victim, that’s a lot different. So if you’re getting information from the victim, and it’s all based on consent, that’s great. But if it’s based on other means that private companies can pay for or using some other tool that the U.S. government would normally get with the court process, that’s that’s really iffy for us.

Erin Burke  19:46

So my biggest thing is prevention. I mean, that’s the one thing that the public can do. In anytime you’re engaging with community members on these topics, I would encourage them to go on to NCMEC’s website, look at their NetSmartz program. Also look at HSI’s iGuardian program. And I’ll just let everyone know HSI is coming out with a revamped outreach program that’s going to be much more in-depth and have a lot more availability to the public. Lots of different things. That’ll be coming out, hopefully in the next year here. But with NCMEC, their NetSmartz program is fantastic. It has training and educational videos broken down by age, because as we all know, the dangers facing a six-year-old are different from the dangers facing a 16-year-old and you can’t use the same materials for that. And NCMEC is really good at that. They’re also a good place that if you have information and you think you saw something, or you had something you needed to report, and it didn’t seem like it needed to go to law enforcement yet. But you know, either way, you could always call them and report it to them. They’re just a great resource. They provide tons of resources for victims. So if you have community members that might have some kind of skill set that can help victims, they could work in collaboration with them as well and offer their skill set. They do so many things that just getting on their website, talking with them is super important. But the number one thing is educating our kids. Parents, teachers, family members, schools, everyone, if we can get them to understand what the dangers are right now, then maybe we can lower the victim rates here, hopefully, because I will tell you, the predator rates are forever going up. And I don’t see that changing.

Sandra Morgan  21:37

Thank you so much. You’re singing my song, I’m gonna put NetSmartz links in the show notes, again, also the CyberTipline. And we recently saw that NCMEC launched the take it down link as well. So have you worked with the Take It Down link?

Erin Burke  21:57

So I actually haven’t worked with that link. I was excited when it launched. I’ve had briefings about it. I think it’s amazing. It’s really important for kids to understand– In the past, I’ll tell you this, I think we all heard this: once it’s on the internet, it’s out there forever. And that is true. I mean, that is true things can always be recirculated and things like that. But now, this program gives victims hope that they can get some of those images down, that they can regain back that power. And I think the amount of victims who might actually come forward based solely on that, who never would have before is astonishing. I mean, if this just helps victims come forward, if it helps one more victim come forward that wouldn’t before I think it’s a huge success.

Sandra Morgan  22:41

I was very excited about that launch because I know that hope is an integral piece in preventing the more desperate consequences to sextortion. And in the Sextortion: The Hidden Pandemic film that you were an expert speaker on it tells the story of a child who took her own life in desperation, and Take It Down gives hope and it’s really important for people to have hope that everything isn’t over. We’ve got processes, we have investigators like you who are making a difference and finding a new pathway to combat the predators that are out there on the internet. I’ll put a link to Sextortion. We don’t have time to talk about sextortion a lot today. But what I want to ask now, because my students and we have students all over the world that listen to this podcast, they’re going to ask: how did you, Erin, get that job?

Erin Burke  23:49

So it’s interesting. I’m not one of the people that grew up saying I was going to be in law enforcement. But I grew up when the CSI time was pretty exciting and brand new. So that crime scene stuff was exciting and new. So I went to college, and I basically did psychology, sociology and a criminal justice minor. And then from there, I kind of, I don’t know, I started developing the idea that I wanted to get into some kind of forensics or something like that. And I had some professors who were special agents. And that kind of pushed me in the right direction, just chatting with them. I had some great professors that were fun to talk to and told me about their job. So then I went to George Washington University for forensic science, and then just solidified that I definitely wanted to do something in law enforcement. Like a lot of people who join the federal government, I put a lot of applications out there and the first one that came back to me right after I graduated was Customs and Border Protection, formerly US Customs. And I was a customs inspector for three years, then decided I really wanted to do criminal investigation. That’s where my passion is, I really want to dig into these and you know, it’s like complex problems you want to solve, so then I became a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations. And then that’s it. It’s actually over 19 years now that I’ve been in federal law enforcement and I wouldn’t do anything else, I absolutely love my job. And then the child exploitation side, HSI does everything. We are the investigative arm of Homeland Security, we do everything. When you read my bio, all those things. My first group I was assigned to as a baby agent, was a child exploitation group. I was out on a what we call a knock and talk on day two of starting my career, basically, after training, and that was it. I saw children being rescued due to our work. And I saw really, really bad guys getting put in jail for a really long time. And that kind of solidified my passion. And then I did a lot of different things as a special agent. But I always circle back to child exploitation, because that’s where my heart is. And yeah, so I had the opportunity to come to headquarters, and eventually got to basically run the child exploitation program. And I couldn’t ask for a better job. I love being a part of this, and I’ll do other things within HSI. But in the end, this is something I’ll do  for life. Even when I retire, I will do something in this field as well.

Sandra Morgan  26:14

Wow, that’s such a great response. And I love how you brought into your academic pursuits, psychology and sociology, as well as criminal justice. Just like in 20 seconds, explain what forensic science is.

Erin Burke  26:33

So it’s funny, I don’t use forensic science really in my job, but that’s okay. It’s basically I did, it’s like crunching, it’s like CSI but for real. So the master’s program at George Washington that I was in, we basically learned every aspect of forensic science. So between DNA crime scene processing, all the different styles and breakdowns of all the illicit drugs, anything you can think of when there’s crimes out there, when those folks come in and have to process the crimes and deal with the crime, the science side of it, that’s what I went to school for, although I haven’t really utilized that. But that’s okay. I love doing the psychological side now and trying to figure these crimes out.

Sandra Morgan  27:15

We are so grateful that you are so passionate and so excellent at what you do. And we’re going to have to invite you back because we want to learn more about Angel Watch. In the meantime, we’re inviting our listeners to go on over to the endinghumantrafficking.org website and subscribe so that you get regular updates, you can find links to the things that Erin mentioned here. You can look at the resources at the Global Center for Women and Justice, especially our Anti-Human Trafficking Certificate. And we have students literally around the world in that certificate. So please come join us again in two weeks for our next conversation. Thanks, Erin.

Erin Burke  28:06

Thank you so much.

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