Special report: new agency to tackle online child abuse

Online child abuse is to be tackled by a new government agency launched last week.

Making, distributing and selling images of child abuse has unfortunately never been easier, due to technology, including the internet, digital cameras and mobile phones. The internet, in particular, gives sex offenders opportunities to reach, groom and abuse children.

The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre [link to www.ceop.gov.uk] is to have 100 staff and one quarter will be child welfare professionals, including social workers and psychologists.

Forty per cent of CEOP staff are police officers and the agency is led by senior policeman Jim Gamble. Other team members include computer and credit card experts and children’s charities NSPCC and NCH are also involved.

CEOP’s work will include:

• Developing and providing specialist services for children abused by technology

• Supporting local safeguarding children’s boards

• Training child protection and residential social workers (and other professionals such as teachers and probation staff), on the internet and understanding, interviewing and risk assessing sex offenders, and more

• Identifying victims of abuse and referring them for support

• Educating children to use the internet safely, including a website

• A website where online child sex abuse can be reported

• Tracking sex offenders

Social worker Colin Turner, head of partnerships at CEOP, who previously ran the NSPCC’s special investigations unit, says he and his colleagues were surprised at the swift response when CEOP opened last week.

“On day one, parents and professionals contacted us with serious concerns. The need is out there,” says Turner. There is great value in establishing an agency where online child abuse can be reported and receive a consistent response, he says.

The Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre will refer cases onto local authorities but will also develop, deliver and broker specialist services for abused children.
CEOP chief executive Jim Gamble has emphasised the importance of multi-agency working. “One lesson is clear from past experience: modern-day policing cannot and must not work alone in tackling this horrendous crime.”

The agency’s budget is £5 million a year. The Home Office contributes £4.5 million but much of the money is not new and comes from existing funds for policing. The computer industry including Microsoft and AOL and children’s charities also contribute.

Jim Gamble has referred to an “explosion” in online child abuse and called his agency “the most significant development in child protection in recent years”.

But is it right to focus on online abuse and how significant is the problem? Would lavishing money and attention on under-resourced local authority child protection teams do more to safeguard children?

An indication of the scale of the issue was given by detective inspector Terry Jones, from Greater Manchester Police, now retired and a pioneer in online protection.

Jones is cited in a 2004 digital manifesto by the Children’s Charities’ Coalition for Internet Safety.

“In 1995 the police in Greater Manchester seized the grand total of 12 indecent images of children. All of them were on paper or on video. In 1999 we seized 41,000, all bar three of which had come from the internet. Today we don’t bother counting. There’s no point,” said Jones.

CEOP is “timely”, says Andrew Webb, co-chair of the Association of Directors of Social Services children and families committee.Webb, Andrew HP

“Local social services departments and police forces have been struggling to deal with the trading of images of abused children online, including tracing victims and abusers,” says Webb, who believes a national approach will be more efficient.

“The web is now a fact of life and we cannot assume it is a safe place,” explains Andrew Webb, who is director of children’s services at Stockport Council
So far government publicity has focused on educating all children and parents about the dangers of the internet, with much concern over the dangers of chatrooms and some well-publicised cases of children being groomed online by sex offenders.
But are the risks being exaggerated? An in-depth study of 9-19 year olds’ use of the internet,  UK Children Go Online,  by the London School of Economics in 2005  found that most online communication by young people is with local friends, and there is “little interest [in] contacting strangers”.

“Many are wary about talking to strangers online…chatting to unknown others around the world has little appeal,” according to the survey.
It did reveal that parents underestimated children’s bad experiences online.
And a worrying eight per cent of children said they have met someone face to face who they first encountered online. However the children surveyed seem to be clued-up about potential dangers. The majority tell someone they are going to the meeting and/or take a friend with them. Sixty five per cent meet someone of their own age and more than 90 per cent said the meeting was good or OK.
Nine out of 10 young people are now aware they should not give out personal information in chatrooms and 94 per cent realise that people they met online may not always be who they say they are, says the Children’s Charities’ Coalition for Internet Safety, citing government figures.

Microsoft closed its chatrooms in 2003 and many children now prefer to talk via instant messaging, which is safer.

Working with the very vulnerable children abused to create images is likely to be an emerging issue for children’s services.

In research for its ‘Just one click’ report in 2004, Barnardo’s identified 80 children it was working with who were abused by the internet or mobile phones.

The single largest group – 27 children – were abused to create images.

Other areas of concern were:

• Children viewing adult pornography (five cases)

• Children sold online for sexual abuse offline (seven cases)

• Children abused through prostitution using the internet and mobiles to contact abusers (four cases)

• Children of adults who download or distribute sexually abusive images of children (one case)

• Children downloading sexually abusive images of children (22 cases)

• Children groomed online for sexual abuse offline (15 cases)

• Children sold online for live sexual abuse online (one case)

 The Barnardo’s report sets out issues for practice arising from the research.

“..There is a disparity between current child protection practice procedures and policies, and the needs of children who are sexually abused via the new technology,” it concludes.

Child Exploitation and Online protection centre’s head of partnerships Colin Turner says that children who are abused for images that are traded online suffer deeply knowing their image is to be circulated and viewed on numerous occasions.

It’s clear that social work needs to keep up with today’s technology in the battle to protect children.

More information from:-

Images of abuse: a review of the evidence on child pornography, 
NSPCC, 2003
Child abuse, child pornography and the internet
NCH, 2004

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