Recently the Director General of the National Crime Agency, Keith Bristow, shared a hard truth and the worst kept secret in child protection, when he told us – Law enforcement don’t have the resources to deal with the massive number of child abusers who nest deep within the web. In the UK we are told that up to 50,000 are satisfying their deviant sexual interest in children by downloading images that range from the provocative, to brutal rape and beastiality.
He suggests that focusing on the worst offenders is now the best, if only option. However another problem that I know Keith recognises is the fact that risk assessment is an imprecise science, if science at all. Men who have looked at and fantasised about fully clothed pictures of children have been caught committing contact offences, so the type of image viewed is not always a good indicator. Dr Myles Bradbury had been online looking at images, which were nowhere near the top of the scale yet behind his mask as a trusted cancer specialist, he was abusing children in the privacy of his examination room. You cannot tell by looking and you cannot accurately assess risk on the basis of the severity of the image that the offender is ‘caught’ looking at.
Usually the general public only get the sound bites, ‘We cannot arrest our way out of this,’ ‘The majority of child abuse takes place in the home,’ and ‘People who look at images don’t all abuse children, off-line, in the ‘real world’. In my opinion each statement is somewhere between the truth and a lie.
To say we cannot arrest 50,000 people might currently be true, however I would argue that it is a matter of where the governments investment in police priorities lie. So while I accept that tracking people on our roads is different, it still requires significant resource. In 2012 the police stopped nearly 700,000 drivers suspected of drink driving, arresting almost 80,000 of them. As recent online cases have proven we have the technology to identify these people so must provide the resource to deal with them or accept we are not prioritising the issue.
Other issues linked to the ‘too many to arrest’ statement are that it is used by some to hide behind, to excuse inactivity and even worse it can encourage offenders into believing they will not get caught. The fact is that whether we arrest everyone or not we must arrest more than we currently do or realistically we will never deter sex offenders.
Whilst we know that child abuse is most often committed in or near the home by those who know the child, the family or extended friends and acquaintances, the fact is that the men, and they are overwhelmingly men, who view these images do so from their homes. Tucked up in their study or downstairs when their family, their children sleep.
It is foolish to ignore the fact that these people are real, they don’t live online; they live in real homes with real families, neighbours and friends. Many have jobs and some like Deputy Headmasters Gareth Williams and the late Martin Goldberg choose careers that give them intimate access to children.
People who view these images have at least one thing in common; a sexual interest in children and in my experience they are often the same people that groom the young and vulnerable via social networking, abuse them at home or on the street.
Think about it? They don’t just look at these images they use them to satisfy a sexual urge. Do you really doubt that given the chance they wouldn’t step from the virtual to the real? A 2014 study shows that tactical use of the lie detector in interviews before conviction, of people arrested for ‘viewing only’ offences, in the United States, resulted in nearly 60% of them admitting to offline hands on abuse. So if we are going to give someone the benefit of the doubt, lets make it the child, not the man who masturbates to images sexualising children. Horrifically the NSPCC told us in 2012 that in 5 police forces alone 26 million child sex abuse images were waiting for someone to search for and rescue the child. I wonder how many if any have been rescued and if anyone is looking for them right now?
I am sure we have all felt the frustration and anger when another child is hurt, abused or murdered by someone. I often think of April Jones’ Mum and Dad, Paul and Coral and how desperate they were and are to do something that helps makes sense of it all, their desire to create something that makes a real difference in a world many parents don’t really understand.
So what is the answer? Do we throw our hands in the air and cry that its just too difficult? Do we hide behind the austerity blanket, that says we cannot afford to do more? Do we allow ourselves to be worn down and just wright-off the lives of the unlucky children who live in proximity to these deviants? Or do we fight back for our children.
The confused, muddled and incompetent approach by government and the never ending headlines that make us feel we are losing the battle makes me angry, so I understand the type of anger that fuels many of the vigilantes who go online – the unregulated ‘paedophile hunters’, but they are not the answer. They do however prove that you don’t need to be a police officer to catch these people you do however need to be fundamentally engaged with the criminal justice system.
Special Constables, uniformed citizen volunteers walk the streets of our towns and villages every week. Their presence deters offenders, makes people safer and critically makes them feel safer. There is no reason they cannot patrol the online spaces. The volunteer butcher, baker or candlestick maker can be trained to seek out these abusers, to identify, locate and lure them to a place where the police arrest them.
We sometimes see the very best of people in the worst of times. Communities across the UK are filled with good, in fact great decent people. People who care enough to make a difference. Now is the time to call up that citizen’s army, vet, train and equip them to support the police by mounting an offensive against this online army of sexual predators.
I absolutely support the NSPCC ‘Flaw in the Law’ campaign, but the truth is you can have all the laws you need and the technology to identify predators but without the resources to go after them we will achieve very little. It is time to turn the tables. If every force recruited only 20 volunteers we would be able to place almost 1,000 undercover digital detectives online rather than the handful being overwhelmed now.
A blog by Jim Gamble, former head of CEOP and current chief executive of INEQE Safe and Secure. Extracts first published in the The Sun on Sunday.