Risk factor: A delicate investigation of online child sexual abuse

Katie Walker, a child protection adviser with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop), received a disturbing referral from a website moderator who identified indecent images on the social networking profile of a young boy, writes Mark Drinkwater.

Katie Walker (pictured), a child protection adviser with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop), received a disturbing referral from a website moderator who identified indecent images on the social networking profile of a young boy, writes Mark Drinkwater.

Case notes

PRACTITIONER: Katie Walker, child protection adviser at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop)

FIELD: Child protection.

LOCATION: Central London.

CLIENT: A young boy who features in indecent images. He is later identified as Jordan*, 12.

CASE HISTORY: Ceop was alerted to indecent images of a young boy on a social networking website. Evidence indicates that the images were posted by someone other than the boy in the photographs. It is suspected that the boy is being abused by a family member.

DILEMMA: It is important that both the therapeutic and criminal aspects of the case are addressed. Are the local police and children’s services sufficiently experienced or ought the task be carried out by specialist professionals?

RISK FACTOR: Ceop will need to involve the local children’s services and police, but first must gather the forensic data for the investigation. The joint investigation then needs to be handled sensitively if they are to avoid compounding Jordan’s traumatic experiences.

OUTCOME: A family member is arrested and later jailed for the offences. Jordan receives therapeutic services to address the long-term emotional impact of the abuse.

* Not his real name


Several things in the photos looked out of place. Walker’s instincts were that it was unlikely that the young boy would have uploaded sexually explicit images of himself. “I looked at the images with a colleague,” she says. “It looked like it was a boy between the ages of 11 and 13. They were level one to level two indecent images, which means erotic posing and some sexual activity.”

Walker and her colleague searched for clues about their provenance. “We looked through the images to make sense of them. They were of the boy only. But what we could see clearly was that they weren’t self-taken images. So we knew that the boy had not taken them in his bedroom and that it was unlikely that he had posted them.”

The photos also showed the boy holding a piece of paper with his name, age and the date. Walker was convinced that this was a message to other offenders that the abuse was current.

Establish identity

Although not all the facts were yet in place, Walker felt confident that she had a plausible, if disturbing, explanation for the images. She suspected that the account was set up by someone living at the family home to incite the exchange of images from other online offenders.

Walker realised that it was crucial to establish the identity of the boy and the offender who took the photographs. “Our suspicion was that there was a contact offender who had access to the child. And that raises the risk level,” she says. “In most cases you would assume that there is a very high risk of contact abuse going on if somebody is in the room inciting a child to engage in sexual activity in their presence. So, in terms of protecting the child, it’s crucial to identify who the offender is.”

Information about the case was passed on to local services. This included large amounts of digital evidence along with the home address of the internet account holder, which was identified by tracing the profile set-up information given to the networking site.

Police and children’s services went to the address and interviewed the mother, father and their son, Jordan.

Initially, the father denied being involved and said it was the son who had set up the account. However, faced with a wealth of forensic evidence, the father eventually had little option but to admit he had set up the profile by masquerading as his son. He also admitted his motivation was to incite the exchanges of indecent images from other offenders.

The investigation established that years of abuse by the father had gone undetected. “Through further inquiries it became clear that he had been sexually abusing the child for a number of years and that he had been networking online with other offenders,” says Walker.

Jordan’s father was jailed for the offences. His mother was risk-assessed and there was no evidence to suggest that she had been complicit in any of the abuse. As part of Jordan’s rehabilitation, the local children’s services department arranged for a comprehensive package of therapeutic support for him.

Target for predators

However, an unfortunate legacy of social networking is that, once a photograph is placed on the internet, the individual featured does not have any control over who sees that image. And with large numbers of photos of Jordan in circulation, along with personal details about him, he was still a target for predatory offenders.

Several online offenders, who had seen the images of Jordan uploaded by his father, had traced the boy through networking sites and were trying to make contact with him. Consequently, Ceop was called in again to help on the case. It ensured Jordan set up new profiles and educated him on safe internet use in which he refrained from sharing personal information.

Walker says the case highlights the dangers for vulnerable children using social networking sites. “Offenders will seek out children with vulnerabilities – and that’s as true for the offline environment as the online environment. Children who are more aware are less likely to accept the contact, or may have the confidence to seek out help or report concerns. Children who are vulnerable are more easily exploited.”

Weighing up the risks

Arguments for taking the risk

Clue was in the poses

Although it was not known who was posting the photographs, it was clear that the indecent images were not self-taken. It was likely that this was a case that involved substantial coercion and child sexual abuse.

Forensic digital evidence

Evidence indicated that there was a contact offender resident at the house. With a wealth of forensic digital evidence, and the boy at risk of ongoing abuse, Ceop needed to ensure that local services intervened swiftly.

Expert guidance was crucial

Expert guidance from Ceop ensured the police and children’s services were informed on how to proceed with investigating the case jointly.

Arguments against taking the risk

Local services less experienced than Ceop

Local police and children’s services were less experienced in online crime and needed to work closely with each other and Ceop.

Help for victim might be overlooked

With the police involved, the investigation might have focused on the criminal prosecution of the offender. There was a risk that the therapeutic interventions for the victim would be overlooked.

Tracking other paedophiles

Other online paedophiles were involved in this case through the exchange of indecent images. Identifying them is always more difficult because they might have greater technical knowledge and be able to conceal their true identities.

Independent Comment

Patrick Ayre senior social work lecturer at the University of Bedfordshire

When we think about the relationship between the online world and child abuse, our attention may be drawn to the array of new dangers that confront today’s children and young people.

This case provides a rare example of how the enhanced opportunities for exploitation may, perversely, occasionally turn out to have a protective effect. Sex abuse within the family is notoriously difficult to identify. We learn that, in Jordan’s case, he had been abused for some years and his mother was apparently unaware of this. If his father had not been tempted to use the internet to reach out to like-minded offenders, the abuse might still be continuing.

However, although the naivety of some offenders about the workings of the web allows them to be detected and arrested relatively easily, as in this case, many are skilled in hiding themselves behind layer after layer of deceit.

That being so, the gravest concern must be felt about the government’s decision to amalgamate Ceop with the National Crime Agency. Within such a large organisation, we must fear that the work undertaken by Ceop will be marginalised and its specialist knowledge base diluted.

This article is published in the 4 November issue of Community Care magazine under the headline Web Photos Told Story of Abuse


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