Creating a path to protection
THE understanding most people have of online sexual abuse of children is like the activity itself – distant, intangible, even other worldly.
Hearing from a father who learned that his 13-year-old son had been groomed online then sexually assaulted by the perpetrators brought it dramatically into the present. The crime may be remote, but the victims are most certainly real.
Speaking at the launch of a pilot project aimed at improving support for children who have suffered sexual abuse online and their families, the dad revealed how he and his wife had noticed a change in their son’s behaviour. But it was only after his lengthy use of a laptop upstairs one evening, followed by his mum overhearing a telephone conversation in which he was arranging to meet someone, that the full truth emerged.
“There were a number of perpetrators but we didn’t find out about them all at once. It was an unfolding nightmare,” said his dad.
From the point of discovery, what followed only exacerbated their horror, at times leaving the parents afraid of the police and fearful that their son would be admitted to a secure unit. It saw the father communicating with the paedophiles himself and the family even forming their own ‘exit strategy’ to protect themselves and their son.
In reality, a long term social worker “failed miserably” to engage with the boy and treated him as a “naughty child”, while police referred to him as the instigator and facilitator; they did not treat the crime as serious, nor the boy as a victim. In spite of most of the perpetrators pleading guilty, at trial barristers were “aggressive, intimidating and accused our boy of lying and of being a fantasist”, the father said.
During the two years the police took to investigate the crime, the abusers were free to roam, while the boy, now 17, lost four years of his childhood, “time he will never get back”.
The family was supported by the boy’s school and charities, including the Marie Collins Foundation, the UK’s only organisation dedicated to helping children and their families who have suffered online sexual abuse and exploitation.
Operating from its base in North Yorkshire for the past three years, the charity has now teamed up with BT to pilot a ground-breaking new programme that will eventually train all frontline workers – police, educationalists, social and healthcare workers – to better protect and support children who are harmed online, and their families.
The new initiative – CLICK: Path to Protection – is the first of its kind and is aimed at ensuring that every professional working with child victims of online abuse understands their individual role and those of colleagues in other related organisations. Placing the needs of abused children and their families at the heart of any intervention, the aim is to enable professionals to carefully plan how to approach each case from discovery to recovery.
Tink Palmer, founder and chief executive of Marie Collins Foundation and a world renowned expert on child abuse, said children never tell what is happening to them, and parents are left in complete shock when abuse is discovered and rarely know where to turn for help when it’s not forthcoming from the authorities.
She says: “Online abuse is a growing challenge which requires a very specific response in order to ensure victims are able to recover with the right support. This initiative will provide an invaluable resource for front-line workers working with children who have been abused and their families.”
Training resources are currently being developed by experts, representatives from education and children’s services, the College of Policing and the Association of Chief Police Officers’ (ACPO). It will be tested in four pilot projects, in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and evaluated by University Campus Suffolk (UCS) and then refined for rollout nationally next spring.
Police, too, acknowledge past shortcomings. “When you hear accounts of people being let down it’s a tough message to hear but what’s vitally important is that we stand up and do something about it,” says Detective Superintendent Paul Sanford, representing Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the national policing lead for child protection and abuse investigation.
There has been an unprecedented increase in the last 18 months in reports of child abuse, both current and historic offences, while a rise in prosecutions has led to sexual offences accounting for 40 per cent of cases heard in crown courts.
With regard to the online community, policing it “is now as important as the policing of the streets”, admits Supt Sanford.
The police will soon have new civil powers to enable them to better control offenders who are preying on children both on and offline, and officers are helping to advise on new legislation so that less contact is required for child grooming offences to be complete.
Marie Collins, the survivor after whom the Foundation is named, was abused and photographed at the age of 13. She endured 30 years of depression, anxiety, panic attacks and numerous admissions to hospital before she found the right help to recover.
Today she says: “The photography had a much greater impact in terms of damage to me psychologically than the physical abuse. When you know there’s a photograph out there of your abuse it’s not a question of telling anyone about it but being terrified of anyone finding out or people thinking you’re complicit. I can only imagine how much worse it is for young people who are groomed into providing photographs online. You have to come to terms with the fact that those pictures are out there and you will never have control over what happens to them.”
Marie, who was appointed this year by Pope Francis to the Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors, says it is vital that victims and their families get prompt and appropriate help. “There must be a coordinated response and cohesive treatment that forms a shell of support and protection around the victim and their family, because if the family don’t understand what’s going on they can’t help the child.
“Getting help early can save their lives.”