Child Sexual Abuse can be Preventable
We need to acknowledge the possibilities and opportunities available to protect children before abuse occurs. In fact, child sexual abuse can be avoided to some extent, and our responsibility is to prevent it where possible.
Back in 2021, PPHS decided to respond to an EU Horizon call asking for projects to address several of the following points:
- Increased understanding for security practitioners and policy-makers of the prevalence and of the process leading to child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation;
- Enhanced understanding of the characteristics and key differences between offending and non-offending people that are sexually interested in children;
- Innovative and effective solutions, including training curricula, are validated and adopted by European Police Authorities and relevant Civil Society Organisations to prevent, detect and effectively act on child sexual exploitation, both offline and online, by providing necessary assistance to potential offenders, as well as by providing adequate preventative campaigns to reach vulnerable groups;
- Developed cross-culturally validated risk assessment tools for child sexual offenders;
- Enhanced perception by the citizens that Europe is an area of freedom, justice and security thanks to increased security of children;
- Improved cooperation between European Police Authorities and relevant Civil Society Organisations in preventing this form of crime, taking into account fundamental rights;
- Improved evidence-based policy-making related to the prevention of child sexual exploitation.
In October 2022, the EU launched the 2PS Prevent and Protect Through Support project that PPHS coordinates with an amazing consortium of experts and specialists, committed to helping protect children. The initiative’s website and social media channels recently went live, and we thought we would use the opportunity to explain why PPHS got engaged as the coordinating partner in the first place. The article explores why this project was considered a perfect vehicle to help contribute to the community countering child sexual abuse and exploitation (CSAE).
A Needed Change
Figures and statistical data point towards a needed change for tackling CSAE. In 2021, almost 30 million reports containing 80 million images and videos were forwarded to LEAs for investigation, and the 2022 numbers show a further increase. These typically come from the USA’s National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). In the USA, providers have the legal duty to report the child sexual abuse material (CSAM) they discover on their platforms.
The volume of referrals is overwhelming, and authorities cannot currently process everything. Thankfully, there are projects like AviaTor, Grace and most recently, ARICA (plus others) that are working on improvements for LEAs. Still, the numbers are morale-crushingly high, and we must consider other tactics to address the problem.
Historically, most countries have taken a reactive approach to dealing with reports of CSA. The police often do a fantastic job of investigating cases concerning children being abused and exploited or have that have been in the past. Police work diligently to gather evidence and push for justice. Yet, even if this is successfully managed, a child has still been abused! The trauma survivor then needs to continue living their life, despite the horror of their experiences.
Depending on the severity of the crime, it’s more than likely that the perpetrator will be released from prison at some stage, and will need to reintegrate into society. If this person hasn’t received the therapy and support needed to deal with their impulses, urges and behaviour, they will likely pose a similar threat to other children upon release. This is just one path of many to be considered.
Another scenario could be that a young teenager begins to feel ‘different’, struggling with their sexual thoughts and feelings towards younger children. If this person cannot reach out and engage with psychologists, therapists and doctors, there are many perceivable outcomes one can expect to happen. For example, they start to act on their thoughts and urges, putting children at risk. Or, perhaps, they feel disgusted by their thoughts and begin to punish themselves through self-harm, mutilation or even suicide.
A third alternative would be the person that has other risk factors. Consider someone who has experienced their own traumatic event as a child (adverse childhood experience, ACE). Let’s assume they suffered at the abusive hands and actions of a caregiver, sibling or guardian. Suppose this person is neglected through various childhood development stages and does not receive the building blocks and faculties needed to deal with life’s many obstacles. Consequently, they begin to try and cope through various mediums, taking drugs or abusing alcohol.
They may even use pornography to distract their invasive thoughts, seeking relief from the distraction of sex. This person starts viewing sexual content compulsively, increasing the frequency and severity each time. It might not be long before they search and view child sexual abuse material (CSAM).
This last example may seem presumptuous; however, huge proportions of CSAM viewers said they were not actively seeking CSAM when they were first exposed, according to the CSAM Users in the Dark Web: Protecting Children Through Prevention.
“More than 50% of those who admitted to watching online child abuse
said they were not seeking these images out
when they were first exposed to illegal material.”
Another hugely important finding from this report was that “70% of those who answered said they first saw child sexual abuse material when they were under 18. Of those, 40% said they were under 13 when first exposed to illegal images of children”. Furthermore, research illustrates the corelation between ACE and consumption of CSAM, particularly with men. Preventative strategies can help overcome myriad of future problems, as illustrated in this animation.
Learn more about preventing adverse childhood experiences:
These figures give an insight into the potential of reaching people early and providing help and alternative pathways in a proactive format as one strategy to avoid future abuse and victims.
The holistic approach required, of course, means that the traditional form of reactive policing is needed to complement efforts. Similarly, we must take other proactive investigative steps to penetrate online communities of people actively engaging with illegal materials and encouraging and aiding community members to avoid police detection.
Furthermore, there are enormous demands for increased training and education. Legislative and policy changes must also support the work required to address our challenges.
Still, perpetrator prevention offers hope for protecting children, and we must embrace the evidence-based methods and services that the 2PS project will identify and highlight through its online catalogue of services.
Likewise, it is also crucial to note that prevention is a multi-faceted topic. We must cover all levels and ensure people are supported from the grass-roots with information and education to perpetrator rehabilitation programmes. This will be the topic for a future article.
In summary, PPHS advocates for prevention, detection and investigation and support to victims and survivors, in line with the EU’s strategy for a ‘More Effective Fight Against Child Sexual Abuse’. The document outlines various efforts to counter the growing threat of CSA and exploitation in our online and offline communities.
2PS and other actions that PPHS is engaged in are actively working to address the steps required to make progress. Please reach out if you work in this domain and are interested in collaborating with the PPHS team.