There’s an exploding epidemic of child pornography in Colorado and across the nation. And parents can be completely unaware their children are at risk, a Rocky Mountain PBS investigation finds.

That’s what happened to “Beth.” The horrifying revelation started the day she came home from work and found a business card from an FBI agent on her front door.

“Immediately our hearts sank,” she said. “We thought, why is the FBI contacting us?”

Beth and her husband, who we agreed not to identify because they are crime victims, owned their own business and were concerned they had unknowingly done something wrong. Even so, they set up a meeting with investigators.

"They said we believe your son has been a victim of a crime,” Beth said. “And I said, ‘Impossible. My son is at home.’”

Their puzzlement gave way to horror as an agent broke the news.

“He said, 'I'm going to show you some photographs and I need you to tell me if you recognize the child in the photo,'” she said. “And he showed me the photos, and immediately I just broke down, and my husband broke down, crying.”

Beth saw her son being horribly sexually abused by a man she knew.

“He actually was a family friend that we had known for a long time, almost my whole life,” she said.

The best measure of the increasing production of child pornography comes from data collected by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. NCMEC, best known for its missing children alerts, is a national non-profit that works with internet companies, like Google and Yahoo, and law enforcement to identify and track child pornography on the web.

In 2010, NCMEC compiled about 213,000 tips involving child pornography. In 2017, the number had exploded to more than 10 million.

The Exploding Problem

The heartbreaking experience that Beth and her family endured is common for federal investigators, who deal daily with the growing issue of internet child pornography.

“It's your neighbor, it's your pastor, it's your teacher, it's your soccer coach,” said FBI Special Agent Tina Fourkas. She has been investigating such cases for more than seven years as part of a team at the Denver field office.

“I wish there was some magic profile where we could identify these people,” she said. “But there's not.”

It was Fourkas and her fellow federal investigators in Illinois, Missouri, Arizona and Colorado who were able to identify Beth's son and track down those who had abused him for years. At the center of the case was Richard Franklin, a 50-year-old military veteran who lived with his parents in a quiet Denver neighborhood. He would closet himself for hours with computers near his bed, sorting and viewing his collection of pornographic images of children being sexually abused.

“He had one of the largest collections that I've dealt with over the years,” Fourkas said. “He had hundreds of thousands of images and videos of child pornography.”

Fourkas said Franklin traded his collection with like-minded predators all over the U.S. and beyond, often soliciting those with access to children to send him new photos and videos, which they did, in exchange for his images. By tracking down all the cyber connections to and from Richard Franklin, the FBI was able to identify the children and rescue them, including Beth’s 4-year-old son, who was spending time at his grandfather’s home.

“My dad had some people that were helping him out,” she said. “They were family friends who did work around the yard and, you know, he's doing a lot of remodeling and they were doing that kind of work.”

She said her father had no idea what was happening.

“He was just in as much shock as we were to find out not only what happened but who did it,” she said. “These would be the last people that you would suspect of doing anything harmful to our family because we consider them to be part of our family.”

Both men were convicted in the case. And Richard Franklin, who was convicted of advertising and solicitation of child pornography, was sentenced to 100 years in federal prison.

“Nobody wants to know that this dark side of humanity exists,” says Judy Smith, the Chief of the Cybercrime and National Security Section of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Denver. “The volume of it is exploding.

“I mean, we just feel like we're dishing the ocean out with a spoon.”

Increasingly, the abuse is captured on smartphones and then quickly uploaded to the web.

Kids Get Unknowingly Trapped

A growing sector of child pornography is self-produced by kids who initially believe they are sending photos of themselves to their peers, often of the opposite sex. And younger and younger kids are now carrying cell phones.

“There are online predators out there who pose as young boys or girls, who then entice or ask kids to self-produce child pornography,” said Smith, the assistant U.S. Attorney.

And FBI agent Fourkas said kids then sometimes find themselves trapped.

“They can be blackmailed or they're too embarrassed to say anything, so they continue to send pictures,” she said. “Oftentimes these teenage girls actually find out they're talking to an adult male, they continue that conversation because they feel that that person understands them – that they’re someone who understands them more than their parents do.”

“A lot of the victims don't feel that they can talk to their parents and that causes them to be revictimized over and over again,” said the FBI’s Shivers. “Parents should be cognizant of what their children are doing on the internet and on their smartphones just across the board.”

In Beth’s case, ongoing, intense counseling has helped her and her family come to terms with the worst of their trauma. She is now hopeful and optimistic about her son’s future as a survivor.

“He's going to be doing things that some people could only dream of,” she said. “And he's also going to have this story to go with it that, you know, I dealt with this as a child and look where I am! And you can get through it, too.”