I recently attended the annual meeting of the Interpol working group on crimes against children, which brings together police, non-government organisations and others from around the world to share their experience and developments in the prevention, investigation, prosecution and management of child abuse. The efforts of the Specialists Group have increasingly turned to online child sexual exploitation and the disruption of child abuse material. I was asked to attend and present a seminar based on my research on adult survivors of organized child sexual abuse.
The conference was held at Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France. Attendees came from all around the world, and the conference was held in a room surrounded by soundproofed booths for translators. As presentations were given in a variety of languages, we all used headsets to access real-time translation. The conference was structured around four sub-groups: child victim identification, internet-facilitated crimes against children, serious and violent crimes against children, and sex offender management. It was heartening to see the level of activity and commitment evident in combatting child abuse around the world.
There was a clear distinction between the child abuse challenges facing middle and low income countries, such as Kenya or Thailand, and those facing high income countries such as Canada and the United States. Representatives from lower income countries spoke about the difficulties of sustaining basic child protection infrastructure to address the prevalence of abuse and neglect, including increasingly complex forms of child sexual exploitation from perpetrators at home, abroad and online. These presentations highlighted significant resourcing problems for developing countries in preventing and investigating child abuse, and the need for ongoing international aid and collaboration.
In contrast, police and non-government representatives from high-income countries discussed high-tech interventions in online child abuse, including the development of artificial intelligence and algorithms to detect and remove child abuse material, and assist in the identification of victims. Their focus on online exploitation and technological interventions is indicative of the considerable investment of police resources in internet safety over the last twenty years, led by public concern in Western countries about online child abuse offenders. While policing efforts in this arena have led to important breakthroughs in online detection and disruption of abuse, there has not been an equivalent response to the evidence that most abuse networks operate ‘face to face’ even where they use technology in abuse. The fields of social work, mental health and child protection were notably absent from these presentations.
My seminar on the final day of the conference was based on my research with over 40 adult survivors of organized sexual abuse, and 20 mental health professionals who specialize in their care. I focused on the circumstances in which organized abuse takes place, the types of maltreatment that victims are subjected to, and the challenges and opportunities that organized abuse poses to law enforcement. In particular, I emphasized the considerable expertise on organized abuse held by specialist mental health practitioners. While there are specialists in organized abuse in policing and mental health, there has been limited exchange between these two groups. I also flagged the need for a therapeutically informed style of policing and prosecution of serious child sex offences, since rigid or inappropriate criminal justice processes are frequently intolerable or revictimising for adults or children with a dissociative disorder.
Increased law enforcement awareness of child abuse material, due to its ubiquity on the internet, has in many ways validated the long-standing work of clinicians in the trauma and dissociative disorders fields. Online child abuse material provides incontrovertible evidence for those forms of abuse and exploitation that severely victimized children and adults have been disclosing for decades. While the online distribution of this material needs to be investigated and prosecuted as a serious offence, it is symptomatic of the broader, and as yet, inadequately addressed problem of abuse and exploitation. I left the conference with a clearer vision of the work that still needs to be done in addressing ‘offline’ as well as ‘online’ child sexual exploitation, in high income countries such as my own as well as in the developing world.