(Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre chief executive Jim Gamble. Pic: Tom Parkes)
Child abusers have grown increasingly adept at exploiting the internet to disseminate child pornography and groom children but the fightback is well under way and producing results.
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre is at the very heart of government efforts to protect children from some of the most dangerous and sophisticated child abusers.
It has been involved in several high-profile cases as the internet becomes ever more accessible and the popularity of social networking sites continues to grow.
But despite the specialised, hi-tech nature of much of its work, Ceop has much in common with other child protection agencies. Chief executive Jim Gamble says the work is the same: technology is just a medium, and the internet just another public place where children need protecting.
But the centre’s reach is out of all proportion to its size. “While Ceop is small, our strength is the leverage of impact,” Gamble says. “About 350 children have been safeguarded in work carried out by local agencies supported by Ceop and more than 700 offenders have been arrested.”
The centre was founded in 2006, and has developed to become a world leader in online child protection.
The many tasks covered by the centre’s staff include handling referrals of suspected abuse; developing cases or passing them on to local agencies; educating children as to how to use the internet safely; identifying children from seized pornography; and going undercover online to catch paedophiles.
Part of Ceop’s strength has come from incorporating multi-agency working from the start.
As part of that, alongside police officers and Serious Organised Crime Agency intelligence officers are a small number of seconded NSPCC social workers who are charged with keeping the work focused on children and getting cases to the right children’s services.
While some social workers float across teams, others are embedded in specific units – one social worker in the centre’s behavioural analysis unit is carrying out work on female and adolescent offenders.
A key social work role, though, is dealing with newly referred cases when they are first brought to the centre. Some can be forwarded on to other agencies, even where there is an identifiable case of abuse occurring.
But more complicated cases need developing in-house, for example where someone is grooming more children, or where there is a network of other offenders. The case may then go to the operations desk. It can start small and turn out to be part of a wider network.
“Initially the social worker’s input could consist of overarching advice because we might be looking at tens of thousands of offenders,” says Kate Richardson, Ceop’s child protection co-ordinator. “Which of those should we be concerned about resolving faster than others? The social work task is about creating a child protection strategy. We would look at what the professions of the people are, understanding the individuals who we’re looking at, for example if we might have people who claim they have children of their own.”
Part of Ceop’s role is to educate people about internet dangers. This is carried out through a programme called Thinkuknow, which is designed to keep children safe online by training professionals to pass on safety guidance.
Gamble says the best way to protect children to is “equip them to protect themselves”, so the guidance is intended to help young children know to tell an adult if they think something suspicious is happening, while teenagers are made aware that they can report directly to Ceop.
Sometimes cases involve purely online activity, says Pauline Hyde, a Ceop child protection adviser seconded from the NSPCC. “A young girl online could be talking to a new boyfriend. He flatters her, says she looks pretty and asks her to lift her skirt up and show some leg; she complies,” says Hyde.
“It gets to the point that he’ll get her to take her top off and expose herself. The relationship could then develop into a threatening one. He could say she should do more or he’ll come and get her or put it around the net. Although the child hasn’t been touched, they have been threatened and coerced.
“A child could report that in and say they are scared, or a parent could report in. We would engage in conversation with the child and then the parents, and advise we’re going to link to a local service.”
Ceop has several corporate partners to help it deal with the enormity of cyberspace – Microsoft includes a “report abuse” button as standard in its popular direct messaging software; a representative from Visa sits on Ceop’s board; and other companies such as Virgin Media provide resolution checks.
The centre also extends its reach by providing training to other professionals through the Ceop academy. And it also wants to establish single point of contact arrangements with local children’s safeguarding boards, replicating the arrangements that already exist with all police forces.
This will start with Welsh local safeguarding children boards later this year.
Richardson says the lessons are similar in the offline and online worlds of child protection: “What social workers understand as putting children at risk is the same in the online environment. The vulnerability that children experience online is reflected offline. It’s the children who lack support, or who are bullied or have problems at home, who are most at risk online.”
As for the future of the centre, Gamble dismisses any idea that it could grow endlessly with the burgeoning use of online communication.
“We don’t need to increase our resources dramatically,” he says. “We’re 125 people now. I think you should never see that number over 200. We’re linked to 33,000 CRB-checked volunteers, every child protection team in the police and our local children’s safeguarding board links are growing day by day. We just need to build on that platform and publicise it.”
CEOP in action
A Northamptonshire couple who abused a four-month-old baby girl and shared footage of the abuse on the internet were jailed on 9 May 2008 following a joint operation between Ceop, Northamptonshire Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Kate Scott and Christopher Oxtoby were arrested after Ceop received intelligence and child abuse images from the US.
Ceop officers then worked to identify and locate the two UK perpetrators and supported Northamptonshire Police and local social services to secure their arrest. Pearl Willis, prosecuting, said Scott abused the child while Oxtoby filmed the assault.
Oxtoby and Scott both pleaded guilty to sexual assault of a child. Oxtoby also admitted taking indecent photographs of a child, five offences of making indecent photographs of children and one of possessing indecent photographs of children.
Oxtoby also pleaded guilty to indecently assaulting a girl aged under 11, between 1994 and 1996. Judge Thomas Corrie jailed Scott for four-and-a-half years.
Oxtoby was given an indeterminate sentence for public protection and will only be considered for parole in three-and-a-half years.
Ths article is published in the 1 October issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Hi-tech ally in the fight against abuse