Victims of wonderland

Increasing numbers of men are being arrested
over their use of the internet to view child pornography, but what
happens to the children who are the subject of this material?
Rachel Downey reports on the attempts to find and support them.

To become a member of the secret Wonderland
Club, an international paedophile ring linked by the internet,
applicants had to present a minimum of 10,000 images of child
pornography. When the police smashed the group last year, at least
180 people had succeeded in supplying this enormous collection.

The police investigation, entitled Operation
Cathedral, resulted in 50 convictions around the world, seven of
which were in England. Those seven men alone distributed more than
750,000 images of child sexual abuse. They are now serving sentence
of between 12 and 30 months.

The case rocketed the organised abuse of
children via the internet into the headlines. New technology has
enhanced the ease with which paedophiles can exploit children. With
the touch of a button, child abusers can access thousands of
exploitative images. But what happens to the young people who are
exploited? A total of 1,263 individual children were identified
from the images seized when the Wonderland Club’s network was
smashed. Only 18 have been identified – from the US, Argentina,
Chile and Portugal – and three in the UK. Police were able to
identify the three in the UK because a separate investigation into
familial abuse revealed the abuser had videod the abuse and joined
the Wonderland Club. The three are now receiving intensive services
from Salford social services department.

It is almost impossible to identify the young
people who have been exploited. Some of the images in circulation
are up to 30 years old. It is often impossible even to work out in
which country the abuse occurred. “If you do not publish the
images, which are sexually explicit, what do you do?” John Carr,
internet consultant with children’s charity NCH, sums up the
dilemma facing child protection workers in trying to trace the
thousands of children whose images have been used as part of
internet pornography circles.

The Wonderland case prompted a pilot project
to trace the young people involved. Two booklets, one depicting the
suspect abusers and one depicting the young people, were circulated
to GP surgeries, residential and field child protection workers,
health authorities, teachers, and police officers working in child
protection units in two areas. The photos were doctored so just
faces were seen and not those showing pain or distress. But this
did not protect the staff who had to view them.

Duncan Siret, lead child protection
co-ordinator for Gloucestershire social services department, was
responsible for the project in the county and says it was upsetting
for the staff involved. “People felt afterwards they could see from
the children’s faces what they were having to go through. They made
a connection with the pictures and what had happened. People found
it quite distressing. For some people it might have brought back
memories (of previous cases) they would rather forget.” But he has
no regrets about the process. “There was a serious problem and a
serious attempt to try and resolve it. Nobody said ‘don’t do

Social workers, health visitors and teachers
were all keen to help and many mistakenly thought they recognised
one of the young people. This led to an enormous amount of police

The pilot project only traced one of the young
people involved and that young person did not want to take any
action against their abuser. Knowsley social services director
Anita Marsland represented her director colleagues on the
multi-agency group convened to trace the young people. “We were
disappointed about the outcome,” she says. “The pilot tracing
project was labour-intensive, very time-consuming and quite
distressing for some of the staff involved.”

Despite the disappointment, work is now under
way to develop more sophisticated methods of tracing both abusers
and the young people involved. A new police computer system will
eventually allow care workers who suspect that a young people in
their care has been involved in child pornography to match a photo
of the child with all images in the possession of the police.

But many may not want to be traced, according
to Chris Atkinson, policy adviser at the NSPCC, and a member of the
Home Office taskforce on child protection and the internet. She
draws parallels with the investigations into historic abuse in
children’s homes, in which some former residents have failed to
come forward. “Young people feel hopeless because their experience
of abuse is circulating around. The images are out there. Once they
are out there, you cannot stop them, and it’s out of your

Atkinson says that counselling for those
exploited by internet porn must take into consideration the
specific nature of the abuse and young people’s lack of control
over the images being downloaded.

Training is needed too, she adds. The Home
Office task force is currently considering a training proposal from
the NSPCC, in conjunction with NCH, the Association of Directors of
Social Services, and the Association of Chief Police Officers, on
developing an understanding of how the internet can shape offending
behaviour. The task force has already proposed computer awareness
training for child protection practitioners and police

Marsland argues that although social workers
receive high quality training in child protection, they are not
alert to the potential dangers of the internet. “In terms of some
of the information that I received and some of the images I saw, it
was almost a case of suspending disbelief – some of it was
horrendous. Social workers are really good at detecting abuse but
in terms of this particular form of abuse, I’m not sure that we
would have our antennae up.”

Her colleague, Andrew Webb, spokesperson for
the Association of Directors of Social Services children and
families committee, agrees. “It’s hard to contemplate the
psychological impact on the young people exploited through the
internet. It is a series of issues that we are only just beginning
to address.” He maintains that although this is a new area for
social care staff, they have experience in working with young
people who have been exploited through prostitution which could be
used for those involved in internet child pornography.

“The younger children probably are no
different from those young children who are historically abused
within families and organised groups,” adds Webb. “They will
probably need permanent care placements or adoption with
therapeutic input and counselling and their carers will need to
have significant understanding because most of them will be highly

He likens the teenagers who are exploited via
the internet to those who are exploited by pimps. “The
relationships with the adults are much more complex because they
start as trusting, loving, caring relationships. The young people
are a complicated group to work with because many of them become
self-destructive. They fight against the help they are offered. It
is very, very difficult to find suitable placements. If you put
them in a children’s home, then they can become very difficult to
manage and behave sexually towards everyone.”

At the end of last year police around the
world co-ordinated a second massive crackdown on internet child
pornography. A total of 10,000 people were targeted, 320,000 images
seized, and 130 people arrested, including nine in the UK. The case
demonstrated yet again that despite the successful action against
the Wonderland Club, paedophiles have not been deterred and will
continue to use the internet to abuse children. This crime is now a
major concern for not just the police but for social workers. For
them, the challenge has just begun.  

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