CEOP’s safeguarding head Zoe Hilton

Ceop head of safeguarding Zoe Hilton aims to put children’s safety on the internet at the heart of the child protection system. Camilla Pemberton spoke to her

In an increasingly virtual and interconnected world, the new head of safeguarding and child protection at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop) faces a tough job.

However, Zoe Hilton is clear about what she wants to achieve. A former policy advisor on child protection at the NSPCC, Hilton joined Ceop in October last year. She says the biggest challenge for the centre is to make internet safety part of mainstream child protection.

“The online risks to children are very real, but often the information needed to safeguard them seems very hidden,” she says. “The internet hasn’t created abuse, but it has created more opportunities for like-minded individuals to contact each other and interact in dangerous and inappropriate ways.”

Ceop has seen a move away from commercial sites towards social networking sites such as facebook and myspace, where offenders can share stories and opinions as well as images. Its latest strategic report revealed that children are being abused without even meeting their abusers, through web cameras.

Pace of change

“The pace at which technology, and children’s use of technology, changes is very fast. It is an integral part of all our lives but the risk comes from how it is used,” Hilton says.

Hilton’s aim for Ceop’s specialist safeguarding and child protection team is to keep up to date with what children and offenders are doing online. “We must ensure that our research feeds into our consultancy, so that we can share knowledge and practical solutions with frontline child protection practitioners.”

The challenge for professionals, Hilton says, is to engage with technology and not be put off by the types of media that children are using. “Children can be groomed and exploited because that’s where they’re spending time, but adults are often not as confident or savvy about the internet. It can seem overwhelmingly confusing, but Ceop can offer training and advice.”

NSPCC social workers are among the professionals who sit on Ceop’s desks ready to answer calls from anyone who needs child protection advice. They have received 5,400 reports in the last year and about four urgent cases referred to Ceop each day, regarding grooming, children going to meet someone inappropriate or actual abuse.

Children’s vulnerability is no different online to offline, Hilton says, so it must always be a consideration. “How children engage with technology as they grow up should be integrated into an understanding of children’s development.”

However, the internet also provides new ways of catching offenders. “Everything they do online creates a digital footprint so we can track and dismantle sex offender networks more easily. Images of child abuse are crime scene photographs.”

Industry partnerships

Strong industry partnerships are also a vital part of protecting children online. The online Ceop report button, launched recently, provides a one-stop-shop of child support services. “When the button is embedded on a website, children can press it if anything makes them feel uncomfortable. It will take them to straight to information, or put them in touch with professionals.”

The button is already embedded on Bebo and Windows Instant Messenger, and has proved a success. “Half of the 5,400 reports we’ve had in the last year came from the public, with significant use of the button.

“It is important to show offenders that we can crack these high profile networks and make them less conducive to sex offences. There is a strong element of opportunism in these cases and abusers need to realise they cannot get away with it,” Hilton says.

“We are urging social workers to look at reports on our website, such as Think You Know, which has a section for professionals. We have already trained around 8,000 professionals about online protection and would encourage more social workers to come to us for training and advice.”

 See more on Ceop’s work

 Ceop’s website

Hilton highlights

Hilton completed a masters degree in criminology at Cambridge and worked as a researcher and lecturer in social policy at Heriot Watt University, where she completed her PhD in social policy. Prior to taking up her post at Ceop she was policy adviser for child protection at the NSPCC, leading on issues including child protection and new technologies.

CEOP: protecting children

Established in 2006, Ceop is the UK’s national centre for tackling the exploitation of children and a government law enforcement agency. So far Ceop has reached almost five million children with its education programme, has been instrumental in 700 cases of child abuse and has disrupted 166 illegal sex-offending networks.

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