Indecent Images Campaign - The Victims' Story

February 13, 2018

A national campaign is urging internet users to report sexual content involving under-18s they encounter online so that victims of child sexual exploitation can be quickly identified, safeguarded and supported. Reporting can be done anonymously and early intervention is known to reduce the harm caused to child victims, but where do the experts start in helping them to recover?

The electric gates that kept uninvited guests away from 12-year-old Jennifer's family home sadly were useless when it came to protecting her from unwanted visitors on her iPad.

Within two hours of receiving the gadget on Christmas Day, Jennifer had been coerced into taking and sharing intimate pictures of herself, and received similarly unpleasant images from a man. It was only when the pictures of a naked man started appearing on her mum's phone because of a shared family iTunes account that the crime was revealed.

Social worker Vicki Green first came into contact with the family a little while later when she was asked to discuss a delicate matter with the girl's headmaster, with whom she'd worked before on an online bullying education project.

"Jennifer's parents had been to see him because they were so distraught that their daughter had been groomed by someone via an app and that she had sent and been sent disgusting pictures. The parents just didn't know what to do,” explains Vicki.

It is becoming an all too common scenario. The explosion of social media means far more young people have access to the internet and are vulnerable to abuse in the online world. The Internet Watch Foundation confirms that many thousands of similar images, obtained by grooming, end up on the open web, where anyone can come across them.

While those charged with identifying and catching perpetrators are becoming more skilled in their work, the same advancing technology is also supporting the sinister methods used by criminals. Professor Tink Palmer MBE received her first referral from the police regarding child abuse images as far back as 1998. This initial referral was the start of growing recognition that children harmed online and their families required a different professional response to that of those who had suffered physical sexual abuse.

Tink went on to found the Marie Collins Foundation (MCF), the UK’s only organisation dedicated to supporting the recovery of child victims of online sexual abuse and their families.

The North Yorkshire-based charity is a lead partner in a government-led campaign to build understanding, particularly among young men, of the law relating to sexual online content of under-18s – that viewing, sharing, making and distributing any indecent image of under-18s is illegal. The campaign seeks to make users aware that not everything they may come across online is legal and to encourage them to report any material of concern to the Internet Watch Foundation. Research confirmed that this demographic was less likely to know the law and some were embarrassed to admit it. MCF’s role has been to put survivors at the heart of the campaign to increase understanding that there is no one ‘type’ of victim and that routes to abuse are many and varied. As Jennifer’s case shows, there are a range of complex issues to tackle but early reporting can lead to quicker identification of victims, and early intervention equals a better chance of recovery.

“If a child is left in a state of limbo following disclosure, their low self-esteem and self-worth may well result in distress, self-harm or destructive behaviour,” says Tink. “The trauma of disclosure or discovery is often under-estimated. In order to cope, the child needs acknowledgement of their feelings and fears and needs guidance, as do their previously unaware carers.” In the aftermath of disclosure or discovery of the crime against them, Tink says children need to feel safe, to be in a safe place, to be offered counselling or therapy, to be supported through the process of being a witness in any future court case and, naturally, to be protected from contact with the perpetrator.

She says: “The recovery needs haven’t changed with the advent of online abuse, but what has changed is the way such abuse comes to our attention. Online abuse is more likely to be discovered, rather than disclosed, by the child victim.

“The abuse is already hidden because it’s online and children often won’t disclose voluntarily due to various feelings including embarrassment and shame, so we have that twin level of secrecy and silence. I call it the double whammy.

“The good news is that the police can use methods now where we don’t need the children to disclose; both they and the perpetrators can be identified through technology and people reporting concerning content. “Neither do we need to know the full details of what has happened to them to establish the impact because we know enough now about how victims are affected by these crimes.”

As Jennifer’s case shows, families are affected too. Vicki explains: “My job was to help them all deal with their feelings of disgust, to explain how perpetrators work and that it wasn't their fault, and to work with them to help protect Jennifer in the future. The parents also needed an explanation as to why she'd done it.”

Certain vulnerability factors jumped out at Vicki – Jennifer was receiving support with her learning and she had recently fallen out with friends at school.

“The strapline of the site she'd been on was 'come and join us and make new friends' and that's all she wanted to do,” explains Vicki. "For Jennifer, the impact was focused on feelings that she had let her parents down, her embarrassment at school knowing, how she had spoiled Christmas and would her parents ever trust her again. She felt duped and stupid.

"I explained that it wasn't about her, the responsibility was with the man, and men like him are very skilled at what they do. It wasn't her failure, it was his manipulation. As adults it's our job to protect children. “Her mum was devastated by it all. She felt she had a really close relationship with her daughter and that Jennifer could tell her anything. I explained that it can happen to anyone, it can happen very quickly and that it wasn't a reflection on their relationship.

"The initial contact we as social workers have with a family in this situation is very important. You are dealing with a family in grief. The life they thought they had is no longer and they have to come to terms with that. “In this case, the matter was taken seriously and we, the school and the police were able to intervene quickly. With our support, the best thing the family could all do was to draw a line, step over it, move forward and allow time to heal the situation. They will recover, which just serves to highlight the importance of early intervention.”

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“It is comforting to see that the Marie Collins Foundation is trying to address the issues of children harmed online and enabling front line practitioners to conduct work with children that is based on relevant research. I will be a regular visitor to the website and will be advertising the charity in the workshops I facilitate.”

Social worker, MCF training attendee

Marie Collins Foundation Partners