It’s been five years since I left a career in law to become a social worker and it was the best decision I have ever made.
For the last two years, I have been working as a child protection advisor for CEOP Command (formerly the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, it’s the police agency tackling these crimes).
I’m part of a team of qualified social workers and my job is not that dissimilar to when I was a frontline social worker in a local authority. I work directly with young people who are often in distress, their families and professionals who come through our ‘front door’.
Our referrals come from children, parents and professionals who report to us via the ‘click CEOP’ button on social networking and other websites. Generally we respond by phone, email or by supporting other professionals such as teachers, social workers, youth workers, doctors and police officers to work with the child or young person locally, sharing our specialist knowledge of online abuse issues.
At other times, I will get urgent emails from police colleagues in covert operations or victim identification, requesting a risk assessment or referral to a local authority to safeguard children.
This is often when images show us that a child is at risk of immediate harm. I need to bring key social work skills to these cases – quickly assessing risk and the child protection concerns, ensuring I understand the case fully. It’s vital I know what information can and cannot be shared given this is a law enforcement environment. I can then support the communication between statutory child protection agencies, local police forces and the National Crime Agency (which CEOP is part of) – as they do not always speak the same language.
There is no getting away from the fact that our day to day work requires us to assess child abuse images. This is never easy and it’s emotionally challenging, but I have a great team around me and we get an incredible amount of management support.
We are also required to see a psychologist every three to six months to talk through any concerns and generally talk about how we are feeling. However, everyone working at CEOP is in the same boat and understands the impact so we also informally each other support all day, every day.
Focus on welfare and safeguarding
Working in a small social work team within a large law enforcement agency means we have to work especially hard to ensure that the voice of the child is heard and that our work remains victim-focused.
Before an operation goes live, it will be allocated to a lead child protection advisor to assess the intelligence and complete a child protection and victim strategy.
We share this with the investigating team it and will underpin how the operation is run and the approach. Being able to negotiate and work collaboratively is essential as we do not always have the same priorities as the investigators or intelligence analysts.
I am also able to help young people be safe online and prevent abuse before it happens.
For example, a young person will report concerns about a message they received requesting images. Thankfully they haven’t shared any images but we will have a discussion and devise a safety plan, including preventative work and informing parents. This is a really rewarding aspect, given that social work can often feel reactive rather than preventative.
Sometimes we are involved in large-scale, complex child abuse investigations. This can mean being the lead social worker, embedded in the investigation to ensure there is a joint approach, for several months at a time.
I was seconded to the Metropolitan Police for six months for an international operation. CEOP developed and implemented a child protection and victim strategy and ensured that a safeguarding infrastructure was devised and followed.
I have also been deployed overseas to assist international law enforcement officers. I’ve learnt that other countries will not necessarily view the crime in the same light as you will and may have an entirely different approach towards victim care.
Supporting best evidence
In all these situation, colleagues and I have found it important and helpful to stress to law enforcement colleagues that a child-centred approach will yield the best outcome not only for the child but also the investigation.
Research shows that a victim who has been supported will provide the best evidence, which in turn results in higher conviction rates.
We recently went to India to provide safeguarding training to teachers, social workers, police officers and NGO staff. A delegate told us that recent ground-breaking legislation has reinforced the need to protect children from abuse but they struggle with practical issues around applying the law. We ran workshops to train police officers in achieving best evidence from children.
I became a social worker because I wanted to make a real difference and I think this work gives me that opportunity. It feels great when a parent or young person says “thank you” for helping them. I will never forget the first time I was involved in locating a child victim of online abuse and preventing their abuse from continuing – there is no better reward for all this hard work.
CEOP Command is currently recruiting child protection advisors.