Internet child abuse: a Nuffield Foundation study casts fresh light on how cases should be dealt with

This article looks at the findings from a major study of known cases of international and internet child sexual abuse. The research identified six major categories of case – most relatively rare – and highlights ways in which the response to these cases can be improved.

The use of the internet to transmit child abuse images and to conspire to commit child abuse is rare but growing. Policy and practice to stop it needs to catch up, says Bernard Gallagher

International travel and the internet has changed the extent and forms of contact between people. While many of these have been beneficial some have had malign consequences, as for example, the way in which international travel and the internet have been used to facilitate child sexual abuse.

Some moves have been made to address this: legislation, such as the Sexual Offences Act 2003 the launch of the multi-agency Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre innumerable, complex but successful investigations by police, and increasingly children’s services awareness-raising campaigns by the Children’s Charities’ Coalition for Internet Safety and child safety measures by internet service providers.

Knowledge has also been developing. Non-governmental organisations, such as End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes(1) and Unicef,(2) have produced a series of reports, particularly on child trafficking and child sex tourism. David Finkelhor and colleagues have studied various manifestations of internet abuse, including grooming(3) and the unsolicited receipt of pornography by children.(4) The Copine (Combating Paedophile Information Networks in Europe) project at University College Cork has carried out extensive research into the use of internet-based child abuse images.(5)

Yet there remains a dearth of knowledge on what are relatively new phenomena. This raises questions as to the sufficiency of the evidence base for current policy and practice to fight international and internet child sexual abuse. Recent research, funded by The Nuffield Foundation, has sought to fill some of the knowledge gap.(6)

It has identified six major categories of international and internet child sexual abuse:

● International victims.
● International child sex abusers.
● International movement of child abuse images.
● Internet-initiated grooming of children for sexual abuse.
● Internet-initiated incitement or conspiracy to commit abuse.
● Internet-based abuse.

Of these, there is little awareness of two. The first of these is incitement or conspiracy to commit abuse. This involves individuals initiating contact with other persons over the internet to incite, or conspire with, them to sexually abuse children either online or offline. Some of these cases concern especially serious offences. Three offenders have recently been convicted in what is believed to be the first trial in the UK in relation to this category of case.(7).

The second unexpected case involves the smuggling of images. It might have been thought that, with the rise of the internet, the smuggling of images across national borders would have almost disappeared. However, they continue to be brought into and taken out of the UK. Indeed, contact between offenders initiated over the internet has led to new instances of images being moved in this way.

Equally unexpected is the diversity of certain categories, especially international abuse victims. The first of these consists not only of children who have been trafficked (for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation) but also those who have been “fostered”, are victims of abuser networks and those subject to forced marriages.

Despite the considerable concern that has been expressed about international and internet abuse, known cases (with a link to the UK) in nearly all the above categories are rare. Individual police services investigate only one or two cases in each of the categories a year. Moreover, these investigations account for less than 1 per cent of all child sexual abuse cases dealt with by the police. The one exception to this involves internet-based images: the police investigate scores, sometimes hundreds, of challenging cases every year and they account for about 10 per cent of child sex abuse records that they hold.

However, the seriousness of individual cases should not be underestimated. All the children are victims of sexual abuse and some will also have been subject to severe physical abuse, bestiality or other sadistic acts.

A significant feature of the internet is that it provides an effective and secure means of making contact with others, or accessing material, even where this relates to illegal activity.

Despite the policy and practice developments outlined above, there remain many and profound weaknesses in the organisational response to these cases. New structures, such as the Virtual Global Taskforce and older ones, such as Interpol, are making important contributions towards tackling these cases at international level. In general, though, the international response lacks any concerted or co-ordinated effort in regards to prevention and detection.

This problem is mirrored at national level. Most countries do not have any structures or systems for tackling such abuse that occurs at national level and has been initiated online, or, for that matter, offline. Many police officers involved in child protection feel that the government and the Home Office do not attach high-enough priority to it, with the effect that the police, as an organisation, does not do so either.

One of the most striking weaknesses in policy is the government’s failure to provide adequate resources for investigating internet abuse.

A particular risk in these cases is that practitioners and policymakers become preoccupied or distracted by the technical aspects of cases and are not sufficiently child- or victim-centred.

There are ways in which the response to international and internet child sexual abuse should be improved, including:

● An international, multi-agency child protection organisation should be established.
● All countries should set up a national, multi-agency child protection organisation, similar to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre.
● The response to international and internet child sexual abuse needs to be more child- and victim-centred. This should include a greater emphasis on the identification of children in internet-based images of abuse.
● Policymakers and practitioners need to develop greater awareness of, and a more robust response towards, cases involving internet-initiated incitement or conspiracy to commit child sexual abuse and communications relating to the abuse.
● The UK government should make child protection a greater priority – and then require the police to do the same.
● The UK government should ensure significantly more resources are available for the investigation of internet abuse cases, especially those involving images.

As international and internet child sexual abuse is relatively rare, at least in respect of known cases with a link to the UK, it is important that this problem is kept in perspective.

But it must be recognised that these cases involve the serious abuse of children and should be met with a robust response.

Bernard Gallagher is a senior research fellow in the Centre for Applied Childhood Studies at the University of Huddersfield. Before becoming a researcher, he worked in residential child care.

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1) C Beddoe, The End of the Line for Child Exploitation: Safeguarding the Most Vulnerable Children, ECPAT, 2006
(2) Unicef, End Child Exploitation – Stop the Traffic!, Unicef, 2003
(3) J Wolak, D Finkelhor, KJ Mitchell, “Escaping or connecting? Characteristics of youth who form close online relationships”, Journal of Adolescence, Vol 26, No 2, 2003
(4) K J Mitchell et al, “The exposure of youth to unwanted sexual material on the internet. A national survey of risk, impact and prevention”, Youth and Society, Vol 34, part 3, 2003
(5) E Quayle et al, Only Pictures? Therapeutic Work with Internet Sex Offenders, Russell House, 2006
(6) B Gallagher et al, International and Internet Child Sexual Abuse, Research Report, University of Huddersfield, 2006

This article appeared in the 1 February issue under the headline “Dangerous liaisons”

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