Date of Award

Winter 2003

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

David Finkelhor


This study examines dilemmas associated with the investigation of Internet sex crimes against minors. Data collected from a national sample of law enforcement agents provide insights into complications of three types of cases: (1) Internet crimes against identified victims, (2) Internet solicitations to undercover law enforcement, and (3) Internet child pornography crimes.

A mail survey of United States law enforcement agencies identified two samples of Internet sex crimes against minors. The first sample consisted of 464 investigations in which an arrest was made, and the second sample included 68 cases in which no arrest was made. Telephone surveys were used to collect case-specific data on both samples, and in addition, data were collected on dilemmas in the investigations in which law enforcement made no arrest.

An exploratory analysis found that law enforcement investigators reported challenges related to defining child pornography, identifying offenders, determining the criminality of preparatory acts (including online grooming of minors), some victim characteristics (such as victim cooperation), and collaboration between law enforcement agencies. Remedies exist for some of these dilemmas, and others may require innovative efforts, policy development, or additional research.

To examine predictors of legal action taken in these cases, a second analysis compared the sample of cases in which an offender was arrested to those in which law enforcement made no arrest. Those findings provide some support for sociological theories that social structural characteristics predict law enforcement action if legal context factors are held constant, but also suggest some contradictions.

Logistic regression was used to test the relationship between social and legal structure of cases and law enforcement action taken in these Internet sex crimes against minors. These findings suggest that when the legal context of cases was controlled, cases were most likely to receive legal attention if they involved adult offenders and if the parties had a relationship prior to any Internet communication. The latter finding is not consistent with sociological theories, which suggest that cases between strangers are more likely to attract legal attention. However, these findings may be related to gaps in social information, which present significant challenges in these investigations.