For years, a young girl suffered in silence as she was sexually molested by her biological father at their home.
Her abuse continued until investigators in Europe came upon her image while dismantling a global child pornography ring. They initiated a search in the United States.
Federal agents hunted for clues in the images and videos posted online by the father to determine her whereabouts. These clues led them to a home in the Northeast.
When they burst through the front door on a cold January morning with their guns drawn, they found the 9-year-old victim and her abuser, an IT security specialist for a U.S. government agency.
The victim's mother — and abuser's wife — was warming up the car to take her daughter to school when the agents arrived. She had no clue that her husband had been sexually abusing their daughter.
"He told [my daughter] that he would kill me, her siblings and our dog if she ever told anybody," the mother said.
The two, married for nearly 20 years, divorced after the devastating disclosure.
"I traveled frequently for work, so he had a lot of access to the children. He's a parent," she said. "Why shouldn't he?"
Why victims stay quiet
Most victims will never tell anyone about the abuse.
"There are many other children like this suffering in silence," said Michelle Collins, vice president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. "How long would this child have remained in this abusive situation if it had not been for the caring investigators on another continent?"
Many children don't tell because they are threatened or are convinced by the their abusers that they won't be believed. Some feel too guilty or embarrassed to talk about sex with an adult. Still others worry they will break up their families. And many are too young to understand that what is happening to them is wrong.
Children are "doubly silenced," when the abuse is memorialized in photographs, said Dr. Sharon Cooper, a faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. Photographs and videos increase the amount of guilt, making it appear as though the child let it happen. This is especially true when the abuser tells the child to smile for the camera, she said.
"Children cannot protect themselves from sexual abusers," said Cooper, who is also consultant to NCMEC and a member of its board of directors.
Children need to understand that no one has a right to touch their private parts, she said. Cooper tells parents to tell their children "If anything makes you feel uncomfortable, tell me."
Safe to Compete
Children are sexually abused everyday by adults who have legitimate access to them. Abusers could be family members, friends and neighbors. They could also coaches, teachers, babysitters, camp counselors and clergy.
In response to the awareness raised by the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal at Penn State University, Cooper and other national experts will address representatives of youth-serving organizations at an upcoming summit.
"SAFE to COMPETE: Protecting Child Athletes from Sexual Abuse," co-hosted by NCMEC and the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation, will be held March 19-20 at NCMEC in Alexandria, Va.
The objective of the summit is to develop sound sexual abuse prevention practices that can be applied across the entire youth-serving industry.
Public portions of the summit will be streamed live at www.safetocompete.org.
Because youth-serving organizations give adults access to children, it is critical that these programs screen employees and volunteers. They should also adopt policies and procedures that address potentially risky circumstances, such as overnight trips, changing in locker rooms and travel to practices and games.
Coaches often have a lot of authority over young athletes. This authority may not be questioned by children or parents, as was the case with many of Sandusky's victims.
"Sandusky was a person of power and influence," Cooper said. "I call it the celebrity factor."
Families may feel it is an honor when someone of that stature pays special attention to their child athlete, she said. They may believe the coach is developing their children, not grooming them for abuse.
It is important that parents question employees in youth-serving organizations about their policies and procedures for keeping children safer, Cooper said.
A parent who does that will make abusers more leery about considering their child as a potential victim.
"They carefully chose who they are going to offend," Cooper said .
A Message of Hope
The mother whose 9-year-old daughter was sexually abused by her dad is now helping other families reeling from similar disclosures. Her other children were not sexually abused.
The victim and her family are not being named in this article to protect their identities.
The abuser pleaded guilty to charges of producing child pornography and was sentenced to nearly 20 years in federal prison.
With time and counseling, the victim is flourishing in all aspects of her life. Her mother has also put her life back together and draws strength from helping other families.
"It's a message of hope," said Collins, who oversees NCMEC's Exploited Children Division. "With a support system and proper counseling, many survivors flourish and are not defined by the abuse inflicted on them."