One of the most disconcerting experiences I have ever had was of walking in to a roomful of about 30 ordinary-looking, apparently respectable, rather articulate men who proceeded to tell me how they were learning to control their own feelings of wanting to sexually abuse children.
I had gone to a special unit in southern England as the prospective trustee of the Lucy Faithfull charity which seeks to protect children by working with those who perpetrate harm. I went in trepidation; while I thought it important to face one of the big issues of child protection I was frankly concerned for myself, as well as what I might find and keen to question whether the organisation actually did any good.
I came away with enormous respect for a team of dedicated social workers and psychologists; feeling rather inspired about the work they were doing to challenge abusive behaviour, help people to change and over the long term support and monitor them in the community.
This is vital work, but our natural revulsion may undermine efforts to tackle sexual abuse effectively. We resort to wishful thinking; unrealistic ideas about ‘locking up paedophiles and throwing away the key’. We cosset children at home fearing the stranger who would snatch them off the street when abuse is actually far more common from relatives and their friends, other children and those in respected, trusted authority.
This is horrible stuff and it’s natural to want to turn away but if we are not sufficiently aware of sexual abuse, if we don’t enable children to protect themselves, that’s precisely when clever, wicked people can do greatest damage.
Conversely, if we raise a hue and cry over every suspicion we can break up families unnecessarily and perhaps prevent some people seeking help with worrying thoughts and feelings before they actually do harm.
I was reminded of all this last week with the shocking report of the National Crime Agency that 50,000 people from the UK regularly download images of child abuse from the internet.
Clearly this is a fairly recent phenomenon but it must relate to about one in every thousand people who actually have internet access. It indicates that in every community there are people who are actively viewing images and thereby making themselves complicit in sexual abuse; in children being hurt, humiliated, degraded, frightened and used for gratification; their lives destroyed.
This is a foul insight into our society. Given that the very large majority of these people are men it also raises serious questions about the way that we men see ourselves. Furthermore, if watching abuse online is likely to escalate abusive behaviour what effect might this have on future crime rates when the NSPCC estimate that 10% of children already experience some form of sexual abuse?
The police say that ‘we are not going to arrest our way’ out of a problem on this scale. However, a competent police investigation is a fundamental part of effective child protection.
Of course ‘Child Protection is everyone’s business’ therefore it is particularly worrying that a single organisation has felt it necessary to raise public concern when all the child protection guidance recommends a multi-agency approach to achieve effective solutions.
This sounds to me uncomfortably like desperation. At a regional level we have police and crime commissioners but I wonder who is listening to the National Crime Agency? I haven’t heard anyone from Government or Opposition demanding effective action to address this apparently vast escalation of an old problem.
Nor do I see anyone standing up to the all-powerful ( tax-evading), multi- national internet companies to insist on concerted action to remove images of child abuse and to prevent people searching for horrific and illegal material.
Look at the ways that Google, Facebook and their ilk infiltrate our lives, making themselves indispensable. Who really believes that they are unable to help protect children from abuse broadcast online?
Children are children are children whether they live on Tyneside or in Timbuktu. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child signed by almost every country declares that their well- being is paramount, a fundamental priority for us all. There is no evading our responsibility to tackle this urgently and well.
The good news is that child protection systems can work well; there are dedicated professionals in all agencies, some adults take responsibility for their abusive behaviour and are helped to stop and that volunteers and communities can build ‘circles of support’ to help prevent re-offending.
However children require urgent priority; global problems demand not just global but local solutions and a creaking public sector full of old boundaries and outdated ways needs to be revitalised with a dynamic new partnership of public, private, voluntary and community bodies fit for an interconnected, ever-changing world.
Don’t just leave it to someone else, though; everyone can help build the future as well as protecting bairns. More particularly if you are concerned about your own or someone else’s online behaviour please contact the Lucy Faithfull ‘Stop it Now’ advice line 08081000900. Help is at hand.