As part of an operation targeting the UK’s most dangerous child sex offenders, the National Crime Agency and police forces have arrested 320 people and safeguarded over 400 children.
Since the first Coronavirus lockdown, the operation formed part of an enhanced UK law enforcement response to online child sexual abuse (CSA). Between April and September, this led to 4,760 arrests were made and 6,500 children were safeguarded.
These figures are now being released as the Home Office publishes the first ever Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy.
The strategy recognises the evolving scale, severity and complexity of this threat and outlines the whole-system response required to tackle it.
In 2020, the National Crime Agency assessed there were at least 300,000 individuals posing a sexual threat to children in the UK. They also warned that there was a spike in online CSA offending during the pandemic.
Rob Jones, NCA Director of Threat Leadership, said:
“The NCA welcomes this strategy at a time when the threat to children is more severe than it has ever been. It is vital that every part of the public and private sector recognises it has a part to play in tackling it.
“As part of the whole system approach, the NCA is focusing on the most dangerous offenders. Many feel they can operate with impunity online – using anonymisation techniques, secure accounts and the dark web – but as we have shown with this operation they are wrong and we have the capabilities to track them down.
“We have also provided hundreds of leads to police forces, and out of the 320 arrested, 122 were targeted by NCA officers. Seventeen were in positions of trust, including a volunteer with the Scouts, church youth group leaders, a social worker, primary school and college teachers, a hospital care assistant, a police officer, and a civil servant.
“In addition to operational activity against high harm offenders, the NCA also manages a huge number of referrals of child sexual abuse material from the tech industry. In 2020 alone, there were more than 84,000 referrals which resulted in over 16,500 actionable cases being developed and sent to police forces.
“These are not just images or videos being viewed online. What we are uncovering here is evidence of the horrific, real-world sexual abuse of children. It’s really important that connection is not lost or diluted.”
The NCA has reported that one of the 122 high-harm offenders investigated by them included the deputy head of a primary school in Middlesbrough, who admitted watching videos of children being raped on the dark web. Following his arrest, indecent images and 87 category A videos of child abuse were recovered on his laptop. He told officers he had used TOR software in an attempt to make himself anonymous online. He was sentenced in September 2020.
In November last year, the NCA received a referral relating to over 1,000 indecent images, including images of babies. Intelligence work was conducted and identified that a vicar was linked to these images. The case was then swiftly sent to the local force and the suspect was arrested. Fortunately, the young children he was due to adopt were safeguarded.
In another case, two men had been arrested and were found with more than 4,000 indecent images on their devices. This included images of contact abuse they had committed at their home address. In October, the men were sentenced to a total of 14 years in prison and their victims were safeguarded.
National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection, Chief Constable Simon Bailey, said:
“We welcome this strategy and look forward to building on the work already being carried out by police and partner agencies on a daily basis.
“There is more we can do to tackle all forms of child sexual abuse, prevent offending and protect children. Policing has made mistakes in the past and it’s important we recognise that but we are working hard to improve.
“Our changes include reviewing past mistakes, highlighting best practice and publishing advice for forces and frontline officers leading child abuse investigations. Operation Hydrant was established in 2014 to coordinate the policing response to non-recent child abuse and learning continues from that.
“We will carry on improving our approach and working with partners in the public and charitable sectors. Our recent operation with the National Crime Agency targeting the online element of abuse shows the importance of law enforcement working together.
“The positive impact of our changing approach is evidenced in the steady increase in the number of victims and survivors confident to report child sexual abuse to the police. Our focus continues to be improving that confidence because we know the numbers reported don’t represent the true scale of the problem.
“The strategy shows police can’t tackle this alone and our work with other organisations will continue. We – as police, partners and society – have to work together to understand more, spot the signs and intervene early to prevent child sexual abuse from happening.”
Due to children spending more time online during the initial lockdown, this enhanced response also involved a huge educational push to help keep children safe. The NCA launched #OnlineSafetyAtHome – a host of informative, educational products aimed at children, parents and carers which is still available on the Thinkuknow website.
The NCA and NPCC are once again urging children, parents and carers to ensure they know how to stay safe on the web.
NCA’s Rob Jones added:
“The internet has undeniable benefits to society and now more than ever is playing a key part of our children’s education.
“Unfortunately, it also enables criminals to commit horrific crimes against children through grooming, live-streaming and distribution of indecent images.
“The advice and activities on our Thinkuknow website are really important and easily built into home schooling programmes.
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