COVID-19 – Implications for Child Sexual Abuse

By Stuart Allardyce – National Manager of Stop It Now! Scotland

Child sexual abuse is a crime that typically happens in secret. Embarrassment, shame, lack of knowledge and understanding of what constitutes appropriate boundaries and the relationship with the abuser make it difficult for children to speak out at the time of their abuse. Abusers also often go to considerable lengths to silence their victims through grooming or threats.  As a result, only around 1 in 8 children who have experienced sexual abuse disclose their abuse at the time they are harmed.

The current health crisis means that schools are closed and children are now confined to home much of their time in many parts of the world. These are necessary measures to protect both adults and children from Coronavirus at the moment.  But for those working in child protection, we know from experience and research that home is not a safe space for many children; the majority of child abuse – including sexual abuse happens within the family home. It’s likely that for many children, the social restrictions necessary because of COVID-19 may indirectly increase risks of sexual harm. Think of the following scenarios:

An 8 year old girl who has been sexually assaulted by her father on several occasions. She is now isolated with her abuser and no longer has access to protective adults, or safe spaces at school, community or through extended family.

A 32 year old adult male now working from home and living on his own, spending large amounts of spare time accessing legal online pornography and drawn to look at more extreme material. He is interested in ‘teen’ videos on Pornhub, but is getting bored and wants to find something more ‘edgy’.

A 10 year old girl spending increasing amounts of time online as her parents are distracted while working from home. She feels scared and isolated and has been contacted by strangers she has met through online gaming platforms. She thinks they sound friendly and they are asking her to meet on WhatsApp so they can have private chats, share pictures and have some fun.

A 14 year old boy, preoccupied with lots of sexual material online, is wondering what it might be like to experiment sexually with his 6 year old sister and try out some of the things he is looking at online. He doesn’t think he will get found out as he spends a lot of time with his sister helping her with school work in her bedroom.

I could go on – there are so many possible scenarios. Some of these situations involve online harm, and some involve offline behaviour. Some involve the interplay of online and offline worlds.

Is this speculation, or is there solid evidence of more children being at risk of abuse? It’s early days, and the secrecy and shame around sexual abuse means that it might be years before we understand the full nature of the safeguarding catastrophe we could be entering into at the moment. However, there is some evidence emerging, particularly in relation to online harm, that we need to pay attention to. At Stop It Now! Scotland for instance, in March 2020 we had upwards of 300 individuals from Scotland using our online resource every week for adults worried about their use of child sexual exploitation material. It’s a resource that can be used anonymously by adults who know they have a problem and are looking for help and resources to stop, even though they may not be known to law enforcement. These numbers are roughly 3 x what we were seeing in January 2020.

We’re also picking up on worrying activity online. Last week Europol’s executive director, Catherine de Bolle noted that they had seen ‘increased online activity by those seeking child abuse material’  A recent blog by the internet safety consultant John Carr, talked about ‘cappers’ – adults who trick children into doing something inappropriate, capturing an image of the act and then using it to exploit the victim further. The Canadian Centre for Child Protection has been following online conversations between ‘cappers’ over the last few weeks and intercepted the following:

” With potentially millions of boys around the world being or soon to be forced to stay home from school, potentially unsupervised if parents are working (teens in particular) now is the time for cappers to do their part to assist the quarantine efforts. There is a dire need for enriching, structured activities for all these boys to engage in.”

So with the evidence we have at the moment, it looks like we urgently need to double down on child sexual abuse prevention if we are to avoid a potential crisis for our children.

Some additional  prevention activity is already happening. There has been a lot of messaging on social media over recent weeks encouraging parents to speak to their children about online safety and boundaries. This is a great start and sensible advice. But this is only one part of the solution, and we need to be more strategic if we are tackle the different forms and contexts of sexual abuse comprehensively – whether now, or in the future.

In February of this year we relaunched our Eradicating Child Sexual Abuse (ECSA) website. ECSA is a knowledge exchange project, ensuring that practitioners, agencies, policy-makers and the public from around the world have access to advice, support and resources that they can use to prevent child sexual abuse from happening in the first place; or to prevent it from re-occurring if it has already happened.

At its heart is a public health methodology asking practitioners to consider what evidence they have of local need and dynamics around child sexual abuse in the communities they serve. It invites professionals to then think about what needs to be done in relation to universal messaging, targeting resources at more risky situations and responding to abuse after it happens. And you need to think about what all of that then means for victims (and potential victims), offenders (and potential offenders), families and situations or contexts.

So current evidence tells us that there are potentially increased risks of online solicitation for children at the moment. What would using the ECSA methodology tell us that we should be doing to prevent this form of abuse? You would need good general deterrence messaging so that all adults know that sexualised conversations with children are illegal and why it is illegal. You might need specific messaging and supports for people who are at risk of shifting into offending (e.g. adults who have a sexual attraction to children and / or involved with risk taking sexual behaviour online).  You would need age appropriate messaging for all children that can be reinforced by protective adults, but also additional inputs around online safety for more vulnerable children (e.g. children with autism or intellectual impairments, children who have already been sexually abused or experienced other forms of maltreatment etc). You might need additional supports and resources available for vulnerable families. Engagement with internet service providers and those who have responsibility for the online environments our children inhabit will also be key, along with continued diligence by law enforcement. And what works for this kind of abuse – online exploitation – might need adapted with respect to other kinds of harm such as risk of intrafamilial abuse or viewing of child sexual exploitation material.

All of this might feel overwhelming when there are so many other social challenges we are facing. But if you work in the child sexual abuse prevention field, we need to band together urgently to respond to current challenges.

So here are a couple of calls to action. Firstly, have a look at the ECSA website, and have a think about whether there are things there that you can use to help with your work around prevention in the current challenging environment. What might be the things that you need to do more of, or things you need to do differently? And secondly, follow us on twitter (Eradicate Child Sexual Abuse ECSA@ECSA54421403). Let’s start having some conversations about what we can do to prevent this emerging crisis for our children.   

COVID 19 is an overwhelming horror, a crisis of such a scale and nature that very few of us will have lived through anything like this in our life. However, imagine if this horror gave us as practitioners the impetus to get connected, to start to work pro-actively and quickly together so that we develop comprehensive and strategic approaches to prevent child sexual abuse. What if this disaster spurred us on to get things right and help parents make home a genuinely safe space for every child right now. It is achievable. But the responsibility to make this happen now sits with all of us who work in the prevention space.    

Stuart Allardyce
National Manager, Stop It Now! Scotland

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