Extraterritorial Child Sexual Abuse

Extraterritorial child sexual abuse, often misleadingly referred to as “child sex tourism,” involves United States citizens or lawful permanent resident aliens who either: 1) travel to a foreign country with a motivating purpose of engaging in any “illicit sexual conduct” with a minor; or 2) travel to, or reside in, a foreign country and engage in “illicit sexual conduct” with a minor. It is irrelevant if under the foreign country’s laws the minor is of legal age or the sex act is not considered a crime. Offenders often travel to impoverished countries where they seek to take advantage of inadequate laws, weak law enforcement responses, corruption, high levels of poverty, desperate families, and the anonymity that comes with being abroad. There is no single profile of an extraterritorial child sex abuser. Offenders include teachers, clergy, humanitarian workers, doctors, businesspeople, and government employees who use their American status and financial assets to take advantage of at-risk children. Offenders may also be expatriates (“ex-pats,”) that is, Americans who permanently relocate abroad. Offenders may have prior convictions for child sex offenses or have no criminal history. Offenders have been known to seek employment or volunteer opportunities that give them access to children.

Children in developing countries are seen as easy targets by American perpetrators because they are perceived as vulnerable due to unstable or unfavorable economic, social, or political conditions. Parents and caregivers may offer their children for commercial sex with foreigners or may look the other way when there is a financial benefit for allowing access to a child. Additionally, some countries lack effective law enforcement to investigate and prosecute the crime, aggravating the problem. Thus, offenders may believe they can abuse children without consequence, relying on their American status and the value of the American dollar and assuming local citizens are reluctant to report. Some offenders rationalize their acts as acceptable, perceiving themselves as helping the children and their families financially.

Difficulty Identifying and Finding Victims in Foreign Jurisdictions

Successful prosecution of extraterritorial child sexual abuse often requires victims’ identification and cooperation. However, victims may be reluctant to report the abuse for many reasons including distrust of police generally or a lack of knowledge about how to contact United States law enforcement in lieu of contacting local authorities. Corruption and fear of being stigmatized as a victim of sexual abuse may also factor into victims’ unwillingness to report. Offenders often provide money, food, school supplies, cell phones, or something else of value to victims and their families to build trust, loyalty, and dependency. Offenders build long-term relationships with the victims’ families by paying school tuition, taking them on vacation, providing English lessons, or providing other services and financial assistance. This calculated grooming behavior is designed to add pressure not to report and may be combined with telling or implying to victims and their families that they might get in trouble and the financial assistance would end. Even when victims come to the attention of their local law enforcement and U.S. law enforcement, they may be difficult to locate throughout the investigation and prosecution process. Due to poverty, many victims do not have stable housing, or even access to a telephone or other means of consistent communication. They may live in extremely rural areas without access to transportation. There may be cultural or language barriers, differing knowledge or expectations of legal systems, or continued loyalty to the offender. Often, travel by investigators, forensic interviewers, and prosecutors will be necessary to meet victims and families to understand the extent of abuse and pave the way for a successful prosecution. There is often a lack or shortage of culturally sensitive and trauma-informed therapeutic resources and support to assist the victims in their home country and keep them engaged through the investigation and prosecution process. Maintaining lines of communication with the victims throughout the process is one of the biggest challenges of successful prosecution of these cases.

Family Member and Caregiver Offenders

When the perpetrator or the facilitator of the abuse is a family member or caregiver, there can be even greater pressures on the victims not to disclose the abuse. These trusted people in a child’s life have been known to sell or rent children to an offender for subsistence money or other financial gain, thus acting as a sex trafficker. In other scenarios, they may be aware of the sexually illicit activities, but do not get involved or stop the activities because of the financial gain. A 2019 study of the nature and scale of the online sexual exploitation of children in the Philippines6 found that biological parents facilitated the abuse in 41% of cases, while other relatives facilitated the abuse in 42% of cases. Foreign law enforcement may be unwilling to investigate what it considers intrafamilial abuse, making it particularly difficult to bring these offenders to justice. Even if child victims are recovered, children and parents or guardians who perpetrated the abuse will need separate housing to prevent further abuse, and there may be limited child protective services or guardian ad litem programs to facilitate the protection and care of the victims, including removal of the offending parents or guardians from the home.


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