A case study revealing how the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre stepped into to help a teenage boy who had been targeted by paedophiles using social networking websites
Practitioner: Pauline Hyde, senior child protection adviser, NSPCC, Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop).
Field: Child protection.
Location: Central London.
Client: Gary* who was 14.
Case history: Gary’s parents have become extremely concerned about a sudden change in him. He has gone from being outgoing and relaxed to someone who is withdrawn and has angry outbursts. Having accessed his laptop’s internet history, Gary’s parents have discovered he is being sexually exploited in internet chatrooms.
Dilemma: Can the local police and children’s services handle the case adequately or can it only be properly dealt with by specialist professionals?
Risk factor: A criminal investigation and a therapeutic intervention are required. These need to be carried out sensitively if they are to avoid compounding Gary’s traumatic experiences.
Outcome: A criminal investigation is carried out which results in criminal prosecutions. In the meantime, Gary receives the therapy he needs to address the long-term emotional impact on him.
* Name has been changed
Like many teenagers, 14-year-old Gary* was a prolific internet user, writes Mark Drinkwater. However, his parents became alarmed by a dramatic change in his mood and behaviour. They suspected this was linked to his use of social networking sites and, after contacting local services, got in touch with Pauline Hyde, an NSPCC child protection adviser based at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop).
Hyde says that his parents came to her after being appalled at what they had found on his internet history. “They discovered chat-logs that scared them,” Hyde recalls.
Gary was using social networking sites to explore his sexual identity and had confided online to an adult male that he thought he might be gay. He trusted the man and considered him someone who was looking out for him. However, the man responded by sending indecent pictures of young boys and asked Gary on webcamera whether he was sexually aroused by images. This was under the guise of “testing” if he was gay.
Hyde says that the relationship continued developing in an unhealthy way. “Gary was encouraged to participate more and more in online sexual activities. He was coerced into masturbating on a webcam and using various implements in a sexual way,” she says.
Online sexual exploitation is a relatively recent crime that police and children’s services are still learning how to tackle. Hyde acknowledges that the initial responses from local services did not pay sufficient attention to the seriousness of the offences, and part of her role at Ceop is to advise practitioners on how to deal with online crimes.
“Once I’d talked through with the professionals about what this meant for the young person, they then realised they should have looked at it as a child protection case and carried out a section 47 [of the 1989 Children Act] investigation,” she says.
The ensuing police investigation also found that more than one person was involved. Police discovered a harrowing online record of sexual exploitation of Gary by several adult males, all of whom were encouraging him to carry out sex acts in front of his webcamera.
A criminal investigation resulted in court cases with several men being convicted for the sexual exploitation of Gary. Worryingly, these included two professionals who had contact with children at work.
Hyde was alert to another sinister aspect of this crime – the likelihood that the images of Gary engaged in sex acts had been shared between other paedophiles.
The experiences left Gary traumatised. He started self-harming and threatened to commit suicide. Hyde ensured he received therapeutic intervention.
“Although the young person has not been physically sexually assaulted, they have still suffered abuse and the impact on the child is just as great as a direct contact sexual offence. But what you’ve also got is the psychological impact and the potential for lifelong re-victimisation,” she says.
Having secured therapeutic services, Hyde was also eager that Gary was confident about using the internet properly. “One of the things we did with Gary was to get him back online safely, utilising Ceop’s education team. We don’t want him to have an aversion to the internet,” she says.
View from an expert: Tink Palmer, chief executive of Marie Collins Foundation
As this case clearly shows, people online may not be who they say they are and young people, due to their age and stage of development, may unwittingly engage in behaviour which is unsafe and detrimental to their well-being.
Gary was groomed by men who picked up on his vulnerability and went on to sexually abuse and exploit him online. The vigilance of Gary’s parents saved him from further abuse and the possibility of Gary meeting his online abusers offline.
It is important for practitioners to understand the nature of the impact of such exploitation on Gary and the secondary impact on his parents. Gary will be coping with a mixture of emotions including feelings of betrayal, of being conned, low self esteem, poor self image and embarrassment.
Services for children and their families where the new technology is the conduit for the abuse are few and far between and there is a pressing need for a review of the way all agencies involved in safeguarding manage such cases and adjust our interventions according to the needs of the victims.
Arguments for taking the risk
● Therapeutic services
Gary was traumatised by his experiences and there were real concerns about the long-term effects on his mental health. It was important that he received timely specialist therapeutic services.
● Criminal investigation
To protect other young internet users, it was essential that a thorough criminal investigation was carried out.
● Specialist guidance
Ceop staff were in regular contact with Gary, his family and local services. Their overview of the case ensured that all parties were supported and that specialist guidance was available for the child protection and criminal investigations.
Arguments against taking the risk
● Unknown effects
The long-term impact on victims of online sexual exploitation is still unknown.
● Duplication of effort
Alongside Ceop, children’s services and the local police were involved. With several agencies involved there is a risk that without proper co-ordination there will be a duplication of effort.
● Emotional needs
The agencies involved have different priorities and working cultures. If practitioners do not have a thorough understanding of the impact of experiences, victims’ emotional and therapeutic needs risk being overlooked.