Attorney: Teens who exchange naked pics are making a mistake, not sex offense

Prevent sexts using education, not justice system
Attorney: Teens who exchange naked pics are making a mistake, not sex offense

When Robin Shellow hears stories of 17-year-old boys and their 15-year-old girlfriends exchanging naked pictures, she knows it’s called sexting, but that’s not what goes through her mind.

“I think of two kids talking on the phone and a long phone cord that goes into the bathroom, so their parents can’t hear it,” the Milwaukee criminal defense attorney said. “I think it’s no different than kids talking on the phone.”

Shellow was recently hired by the Washington-based non-profit, The DKT Liberty Project, to represent a teenager in northern Wisconsin who was criminally charged with sexual exploitation and possession of child pornography. The potential punishment for this teenager was time in jail and a lifetime membership on a sex offender registry.

“One of the goals of prosecution is deterrence,” Shellow said. “There are a lot of ways to accomplish deterrence here and all of them start with talking about it. Very few of them start with slamming jail doors, and none of them start with a sex offender registration list. None.”

At the Wisconsin Department of Justice, the Internet Crimes Against Children task force gets 150 tips a month of possible illegal online activity targeting kids. Its agents travel around the state educating students and parents on how their choices could have a long-term impact.

“What kids need to realize when they’re doing this stuff is they’re walking a fine line with not only producing child pornography, but distributing child pornography when they send it to others, even if it’s of themselves,” Special Agent Dana Miller said. “There are some serious risks and consequences for the behavior that’s going on here.”

Miller said there are child predators scouring the internet, looking for material and trading it among themselves. Further, she said what’s called “sextortion” is a growing crime in which recipients, in essence, extort people to send more pictures by text.

“That child might make a mistake and send that first photo, and we certainly all understand that mistakes happen,” Miller said. “What we want kids and parents to understand is it doesn’t matter how embarrassing it is if you make that mistake; talk to a trusted adult about it because the further you get into that situation, the deeper and deeper it gets, and the more harmful it’s going to be.”

Everybody who’s had experience dealing with the issue says education and conversation are the keys to preventing exploitation and poor decision making.

Shellow offered an easy-to-remember cellphone mantra that can kickoff a discussion between parents and kids.

“Clothes off, phones off,” Shellow said. “That would be a beginning. And then we’ve got to start talking about it. It would start the conversation. Clothes off, phones off.”

DOWNLOAD: Tips to prevent sexting: For parents and teens