The line between cute kids at play and child porn

If what the wife of a Mankato football coach is saying about her husband’s arrest on felony child porn charges is true, there’s another chapter in the book of people taking cute pictures of their kids naked.

“The charges against my husband are ridiculous and baseless,” Melodee Hoffner said at her husband’s attorney’s office today. “My family does what every family does – we take videos and pictures of our kids in all their craziness. My husband would not ever abuse our children or any other children.”

Her husband, Todd Hoffner, head football coach at Minnesota State University, Mankato, took his broken cellphone to the university IT department to get a new one and the video and images transferred. The technician called the cops when he/she saw the images.

He was charged with possessing child porn and using minors in a sexual performance or pornographic work.

“It’s a difficult distinction to make. What’s a cute butt and what’s pornographic?” That’s a classic quote from Stan Rebert, York County (Pennsylvania) district attorney, who charged a 59 year old woman with child porn after she took her film of her two-year-old granddaughter getting out of the bathtub to WalMart.

Fifteen months later, the charges were dropped and the woman, Donna Dull, filed suit against the police.

The same thing happened in Arizona. Lisa and Anthony “A.J.” Demaree dropped film off at WalMart of their vacation to San Diego. Several of them were “bath- and playtime” photos of their daughters. The kids were taken from the home for a month. Neither parent was charged with a crime, although the police released statements describing photos that they contended went beyond playtime.

The couple was placed on a sexual offender list. Mrs. Demaree was suspended from her educator job for a year.

A judge returned the children when he viewed the photos and found them to be “innocent” in nature.

“If one of these images that our folks reviewed somehow circulated and it was reported that our office had seen that or that CPS had seen that and basically turned a blind eye, I think most people would say, ‘That’s not right, you aren’t doing your job. You’re supposed to be acting to protect children from potential exploitation and an image like that is suggesting that maybe something else is going on here that ought to be investigated,'” a spokesman for the Arizona attorney general told the Arizona Republic newspaper.

The FindLaw Crime and Criminals blog noted the case and explained the guidelines authorities have to make in making these kinds of charges.

Though many acts are obviously sexually explicit, “sexually explicit conduct” under federal law also includes “lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area of any person.” Federal court have identified some factors to help decide whether genitals in particular images constitute a lascivious exhibition. These factors include:

Whether the genitals or pubic area are the image’s focal point;

Whether the setting is sexually suggestive;

Whether the child is depicted in an unnatural pose or age-inappropriate attire;

Whether the subject is nude, partially or fully clothed;

Whether the image suggests a willingness to engage in sexual activity; and

Whether the image is intended to elicit a sexual response in the viewer.

“The downside of society’s increased awareness that bad things happen to children is an increased tendency to see those bad things everywhere,” Lisa Belkin of the NY Times parenting blog wrote.

In the Hoffner case, according to the Associated Press, the videos show the children dancing and exposing their genitals.

The Star Tribune describes them this way…

According to the charges, in one video, all three drop towels covering their bodies and jump around, while an 8-year-old boy fondles himself and the two girls bend over and spread their buttocks. In a second video, the girls are dancing naked and the boy enters naked, wearing only a football helmet. In the third video, one of the girls is shown being awakened in bed and told by a male voice “to go potty” before she is followed to the bathroom in her underwear with the camera focused on her buttocks.

The system will sort all of this out. In the meantime, the message to parents is clear: Don’t take pictures or videos of your children unclothed.

  • Steve

    Anyone who can’t tell the difference between real child exploitation and a parent’s goofy video of their own kid is an idiot.

    Have we lost all ability for sound judgement and reason?

    I suppose parents should now wear blindfolds while bathing their kids for fear of a neighbor seeing and accusing them of something nefarious.

  • Kassie

    “In the meantime, the message to parents is clear: Don’t take pictures or videos of your children unclothed.”

    OR, don’t do it with your work issued cell phone…

  • Mark

    I feel like everyone is entitled to a presumption of innocense and that when a trial is covered, it can be eroded. I remember your take on Ms. Anthony and I thought it was dead-on. My feeling is that we’d all be better served if we kept quiet until a verdict is reached.

  • Steve

    As a parent of children that loved to run around the house dancing and being silly while naked when they where smaller, I understand the desire to capture cute and crazy on film.

    However, parents must stop and think, is this a photo/video I would feel comfortable if a complete stranger where to see? If you take a photo that needs to be developed or printed at a store, you are doing just that, putting it in a strangers hands. If you take that photo or video on a work phone, again you are doing the same. You do not own the work phone so should not expect any privacy from your employer. And if they see it, in most cases, they NEED to report it.

    People just need to stop and think before they snap that photo or take that video.

  • JSK

    I would be curious to know if the report of this to the authorities was done under an MSU-Mankato (or MSU) policy or if the technician who saw the videos took it upon themselves to report this because they thought it “pornographic”.

    Also, even if this man is found innocent, his reputation has been permanently stained by just having these allegations reported publicly and they’ll follow him where ever he goes.

  • Dylan Kvasnicka

    //And if they see it, in most cases, they NEED to report it.

    Exactly. If these images are found by a stranger (who likely cannot or will not understand the context), there is a definite obligation to report.

    Regardless of the verdict, I believe the actions of the IT individual were justified.

  • BenCh

    The scary thing while reading this is I have yearbooks where parents put pictures of their kids when they were young in them and some of them were bath time type photos. Really curious if those photos, since I am not related to them, could be considered child porn now…

  • GBrunkhorst

    I don’t cast a stone at MSU, as their administration has 2 reasons to escalate and review ‘suspicious data’ (photos, emails, etc) found on university equipment: 1) policy of appropriate use (our staff is not to use university equipment for personal use or any use that would put the university at risk of breach of security, or civil, criminal, or regulatory findings; and 2) in the wake of Penn State and the NCAA ruling, any withholding of potentially damaging information from going ‘up the chain’ could be construed as a conspiracy to withhold evidence of a crime or a NCAA compliance violation.

    Once this hit a VP’s and/or the AD’s desk, this really became a decision of ‘let the court’s decide, we have to act on our published protocols and protect our University and our program.’

    And if the law is the law, then the prima faci case has been met, given the description. It’s up to the jury/community to decide.

    I’m of mixed mind of this, I’m on record as saying any photography of your children in undress should not be done on internet enabled devices or devices you give to others (such as a work phone for repairs), as even if you don’t perceive it as pornographic, others may. I would not want my children’s naked images in TMZ magazine like Prince Harry, and if a work phone, you put your employer in a terrible position, as you have violated ‘appropriate use’ with a very touchy subject.

    I’m also concerned of pedophilia as a ‘criminal underground.’ I don’t want what happened in Jordan MN to repeat, but any case involving the capture of juvenile nudity/acts on a potential distribution medium, must be investigated. The laws are written to stop child exploitation, and it should be stopped as much as possible.

    But as this case unfolds, I’m seeing the distinct possibility of Coach Hoffner and his wife making a very bad decision on the choice of recording equipment. Even if he is acquitted, his employer may consider this a serious employee infraction, given his public face of the university, and seek to sever ties.

  • Kassie

    What really bothers me about this is if how the police describe the video is really disturbing:

    “According to the charges, in one video, all three drop towels covering their bodies and jump around, while an 8-year-old boy fondles himself and the two girls bend over and spread their buttocks.”

    I don’t know how old the girls are, but I’d say taking video of your naked 8 year old boy is sketchy in itself. I get taking bath photos when your kid is two, but eight? That’s not cute. That’s straight up creepy. Illegal? Not for me to judge, but absolutely creepy.

  • Morgan

    Seems like porn to me. Spreading buttocks is very sexual. Man, woman, boy, girl. Not all naked bodies are sexualized but that description is very suspect.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Of course children should always be protected from possible abuse and the police and courts must err on the side of being OVERLY protective.

    But “spreading buttocks is very sexual”?

    Or perhaps joyfully enthusiastic mooning.

  • Eric

    Personally, I haven’t taken bathtime photos of my daughter since she turned 2 or so. I was also very careful not to post them anywhere online or on my phone because although they are not sexual in any way, there are very sick people who would still view them that way.

    As far as the above description … even if not sexual in nature…isn’t 8 getting a bit old to be playing naked?