We must expose the hidden horror of child abuse under lockdown

By the age of four, most children can sing a song by heart. Parenting manuals describe how shortly after this, your child will begin to express complex emotions, develop a sense of humour and create worlds of make-believe. They will fail to capture the wonder – and the fear – of preparing to leave your son or daughter at the school gates for the first time.

Four marks another milestone, one that’s difficult to discuss. In a survey of survivors of online child sexual abuse, more than half said that by this age their exploitation had already begun. That infants are sexually victimised so routinely will sicken any decent-minded person.

When you read the word “paedophile”, chances are that the abuser you imagine is the lone pervert, acting in isolation. The distressing truth, however, is that stranger danger isn’t the most prevalent threat.

Children are less likely to be abused in person by an unknown predator at school than they are to be assaulted by their own family members, friends or acquaintances – often in their own home. Images and videos from sexual assaults such as these are often shared online for the gratification of others.

For these children, lockdown is the perfect storm. Isolated alongside their abuser, they will suffer severe and long-lasting damage. The surge in child sexual abuse won’t be reflected in statistics until later this year. As appalling as those numbers will be, however, they will still only scrape the surface of what’s been occurring under our noses for decades.

When I walked into the Home Office in 2018, I assumed that dealing with terrorists would weigh the most heavily on me. I was mistaken. A visit to the National Crime Agency brought home the horrific scale of sexual abuse. Last month, the NCA estimated that at least 300,000 people in the UK pose a sexual threat to children. Referrals of child abuse images from UK industry alone are up 1,000 per cent since 2013. That isn’t a typo.

Evidence suggests that one in six children is sexually abused. I fear this represents a fraction of the abuse taking place. Our agencies agree that the vast majority of these crimes are never detected or revealed.

That realisation made child abuse one of my top priorities in office, starting with a substantial increase in funding for front-line agencies and an upgrade in the tools they had at their disposal. I am delighted that Priti Patel and her team have picked up where I left off. The Hidden Harms Summit she held with the Prime Minister last week confirms that children are at the forefront of Government thinking, as does, her focus on the Dark Web and a data-driven approach to tackling the threat posed by offenders.

In spite of these efforts, however, the threat continues to escalate. That’s why I have decided to partner with the Centre for Social Justice to launch an investigation into child sexual abuse and exploitation in the UK.

We will improve our understanding of who the perpetrators are and establish which children are most vulnerable. Above all, we will seek to arm the Government with policy suggestions capable of turning the tide.

The project will be split into two parts. The first will look at sexual abuse committed in person, including on-street grooming by organised gangs in places such as Rotherham and Rochdale, where children as young as 11 are targeted by criminals and trafficked between groups of men to be subjected to gang rapes.

Difficult questions must be asked. It is a source of great sadness and anger for me that the men convicted in recent high-profile cases have been disproportionately of Pakistani heritage. Our investigation will not allow cultural or political sensitivities to get in the way of understanding the problem. We will follow the evidence, regardless of how uncomfortable the outcome.

In the second part of the project we will investigate how online abuse is connected to abuse in person. Though our focus will principally be abuse in the UK, we will also look beyond our borders to contend with live-streamed sexual abuse, in which British citizens pay to dictate the way in which children from countries such as the Philippines are violated via webcam.

We’ll work to discover the best ways to prevent individuals with a sexual interest in children from committing crimes, and ask how they should be punished if they do. We’ll determine which children are most at risk, and ask why the abuse of black and minority ethnic and LGBTQ+ children is more likely to be missed.

In short, we’ll ask the questions that many won’t, to uncover the true scale of a problem that has all too often been ignored. Because while the violation of one child is one child too many, one in six is devastating.

 

You can read this article in The Telegraph: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/05/30/must-expose-hidden-horror-child-abuse-lockdown/