Law & politics

Policing online child sexual abuse

CATS MDXResearch Fellow Dr Jeffrey DeMarco, Research Associate Mia Scally and Lead Investigator and Co-Director of the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies at Middlesex University Professor Julia Davidson report on a European perspective on the challenges of policing online child sexual abuse ahead of the ISEC Project Conference in London.

For the last two years, a European team led by the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex has been exploring a range of issues linked to the exploitation and abuse of children in cyberspace. This has involved a great deal of effort exploring the continuously expanding literature on crimes perpetrated in cyberspace, but also the placement of associated services, such as law enforcement, victim support, courts, prison and probation.

A robust methodological process was implemented to ensure that the findings were of a high quality and useful, with the ultimate purpose of illustrating both models of good practice in policing collaboration in the case of these crimes, but also cyber-typologies of historical victims of online sexual abuse and exploitation. Culminating our research findings will be a showcase event (see below for details) in which members of the research team, in conjunction with some of the key international and national stakeholders from Interpol, Europol, NSPCC and CATS, will deliberate and discuss the findings and their implications for all vested-parties moving forward.

Anonymous Account (Creative Commons 2.0)
Photo by Anonymous Account (Creative Commons 2.0)

Robust assessment

The project began with a robust and structured ‘pseudo’ rapid evidence assessment, illustrating our current understanding of policing, collaboration and victimology. Over 23,000 documents were identified through the use of 18 pre-constructed search terms. Searches were conducted across 20 academic and grey literature sources. Approximately 1,000 were retained for inclusion using the inclusion/exclusion criteria. Literature was reviewed initially by title to remove any irrelevant terms (e.g. cyber-bullying). Literature was then reviewed by abstract and in full. These findings assisted with identifying key themes and gaps across the research aims and objectives, including:

  • Jurisdictions and incongruent legal frameworks
  • Lack of police communication, resources and standardisation
  • Problems with definitions of victims
  • Invisibility and anonymity of offenders
  • Poor understanding of the pathway from online to offline offending
  • Risky behaviour of youth versus developmental behaviours
  • Incongruence between the aims and objectives of industry and law enforcement.

To understand these sexual crimes, one must understand the idiosyncrasies of technologies and cyberspace and how they have influenced and evolved our general and seminal understanding of child abuse. These concepts guided the entire primary research process and thus were key in informing our data collection procedures and emergent findings.

Working in partnership

Central to the investigation was improving our understanding of the police process in identifying and investigating online childhood sexual abuse. The team wanted to clarify how crimes were reported; who was contacted; where did these reports usually come from and where did they go; what was reported and why. Although much of this information is simplistic in its exploratory nature, and by no means ambiguous to those working closely with or within law enforcement, there is a need for greater sharing of practice, process and problems. This includes key messages from a range of related stakeholders informing how working in partnership is key in tackling these crimes.

The idea is to explore the potential of predicting negative experiences online – potentially targeting vulnerable youth for further support and resources.

The research has also assisted the team in developing theoretical models of adolescent cyber-victimisation and risk-taking behaviour.  Focusing on elements of their externalising and internalising behaviours during those formative teenage years, the models explore the susceptibility and approachability young people face to sexual solicitation while engaging online. The models also explore the influence of recalled/remembered risk behaviour (both virtual and real); the online antecedents of offline anti-social and risk actions; and finally the importance of seeking support and disclosing a negative online sexual experience or approach in influencing later pro-social outcomes, or increasing individual resilience when dealing with sexual content. The idea is to explore the potential of predicting negative experiences online – potentially targeting vulnerable youth for further support and resources.

Influencing practice

What is certain is that there is still much more work to be done. The findings highlighted as a result of this project are meant to inform and influence practice in a way that key stakeholders are aware of the ‘on-the-ground’ process of dealing with these crimes, and the evolving landscape of victimisation. Transparency across law enforcement and victim support are critical in empowering those agencies and agents responsible for offering diligent, effective and usable support. Legitimate practice is reliant on the public’s perception and understanding of those responsible for our safety’s aims and objectives.

This project has assisted in advancing our understanding of what is happening in cyberspace, and the key strengths we have in combatting online abuse directed towards children, as well the weaknesses that affront us. Moving towards empirical-driven policy, as is intended with the results of the last two years, we can only improve across disciplines in combatting these crimes and helping those most vulnerable.

The ISEC Project Conference ‘The Digital World & Sexual Offending: Policing, Cooperation & Victimisation’ takes place on 23 June 2016 at the Institute of Child Health in London.