opinion

Online child sexual abuse increased 122 per cent in lockdown. We need to address the cause.

Imagine a health system that only had an emergency department. Imagine the needless suffering. Imagine the nurses and doctors who would be completely overwhelmed providing support to people with preventable diseases.

And so it is with some of our greatest societal problems – like child sexual abuse. We have made great strides in this country in raising awareness and creating a community that wants to take action.

We are investing more and more in the police response and the support services for victims of abuse. But how much are we actually doing to address what causes people to perpetrate abuse in the first place?

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Child sexual abuse is rightly considered by our society as its most heinous crime – and so the idea of exploring why people do it feels sickening, right?'

But if we are fair dinkum about preventing children from being abused, we must confront and address the causes of perpetration.

I have been in the unique position of having worked with victims, and also paedophiles, when I was given the statutory position of being the Queensland Public Guardian.

Some people are shocked to know there are individuals out there who actually want help to prevent or stop themselves from offending. Many of these people are young themselves. My experience has really challenged my previous stereotypes of an offender both online and in our community.

My grave concern is that members of the community picture a child sexual abuser as someone who preys on children from outside the family or online.

However, the majority of child sexual abuse that is reported occurs in the home. And this is where lockdown has both incubated and exacerbated the issue. Many perpetrators of child abuse online are also abusing children in the home.

COVID-19 has seen a shocking rise in child sexual abuse. Did you know that reports of online child sexual abuse in Australia increased by 122 per cent during the first three months of coronavirus lockdowns?

There is no doubt that people who perpetrate abuse are exploiting the fact there are more children online doing their schooling. But there is also a different act of child abuse offending that has rampantly increased. People seeking out child abuse images increased.

Platforms that support the distribution of child abuse images were so over-burdened by users during the start of lockdowns that they crashed.

The victims are children all over the world not just those being groomed while schooling on computers in Australia. 

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What does this say about the people who want to access this material and why? What does it say about the increase in access to this material?

“Paedophiles and paedophilia is pure evil, Nat. We just have to accept there is evil, and evil people in this world,” a colleague once said to me.

Well no, we don’t have to ‘just accept’ it.

We don’t ‘just accept’ there is disease in the world, without researching the causes and investing in fighting those causes.

We need to do the same to find and address the causes of child sexual abuse. I can tell you there are people working quietly in the background on programs to address the reasons why people perpetrate this behaviour, but it’s not on a scale even close to what’s actually needed.

Australia’s police and other critical services are amongst the global leaders in intercepting online child abuse materials.

My own organisation, Child Wise, is in the course of bringing new technology to Australia that will enhance this ability. There are many other incredible organisations out there who support victims of this horrific abuse.

However, we have a long way to go to make the appropriate investment, policies and legislation that can turn the tide on offending itself.

We can’t keep relying on a response that is simply police intervention once offending has occurred.

It is akin to investing in a health system that only has an emergency department. A victim may be subject to one perpetrator, but sadly we know from the royal commission that often the offender has many victims. Addressing the cause of perpetration can prevent numerous further victims.

We will always need the emergency department. We will always need the incredible, dedicated police who witness unspeakable trauma and come back every day to intercept offending, the counsellors and support workers who support the road to recovery for victims of abuse.

There are brilliant minds in this area in Australia, many running small programs with good success.

There are also experts here on our own turf leading research that gives us the clues as to the policies needed to address the drivers of offending.

Governments and communities in Australia need to listen – and ask ourselves that confronting question: what do we need to implement so we are not just relying on our emergency department?

Natalie Siegel-Brown is the Managing Director of Child Wise and the former Queensland Public Guardian.

Feature Image: Getty.