Improving current responses: the need for evidence-based decisions
By Margaret (Maggie) Brennan, Researcher and Lecturer, University College Cork, Ireland.
Academic research plays an important role in ensuring that law enforcement and other stakeholders working to combat online child sexual abuse and exploitation make well-founded, evidence-led decisions in policy and practice.
NetClean’s 2015 survey of law enforcement agencies across 28 countries determined that law enforcement is now processing Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) offences in unprecedented volumes. Moreover, CSAM cases have become more complex in character; rendering case management and prosecution more difficult than ever before. These combined challenges of offence volume and complexity limit law enforcement’s capacity to detect, prosecute and otherwise manage these crimes, let alone curb the growing scale of the problem of online sex offending.
So how can we work together to improve the current situation?
The need for evaluation of management and prevention efforts
In most jurisdictions, offenders are only granted access to preventive interventions and support services once they are convicted of a CSAM offence. Evidently, this situation seriously compromises any meaningful potential for secondary prevention strategies, which target ‘at-risk’ individuals, who may have not yet committed a sexual offence.
Furthermore, it creates a dependence on the effectiveness of post-arrest treatment and interventions for offence management and prevention. In the UK, for example, a major treatment programme for online sex offenders (i-SOTP: internet Sex Offending Treatment Programme) was developed based on established dynamic risk factors for general sexual offenders. However, in spite of its widespread use, no independent systematic evaluation of treatment effect was conducted.
This situation is not limited to sex offender treatment programmes. In many areas, both within and outside of the criminal justice system, interventions are administered with little, if any, independent empirical evaluation of their effectiveness in terms of managing and preventing online child sexual abuse and exploitation.
The need for closer collaboration between academics and practitioners
In recent years, a growing body of research on online child sex offenders has emerged. Research professionals are gradually developing a knowledge base regarding the assessment, risk management and treatment needs of online child sex offenders, as well as strategies for the policing and prevention of such offences.
However, the existing research is still limited and fragmented, in terms of types of study, its accessibility to frontline practitioners and applicability to different jurisdictions (currently mostly Western populations). Moreover, countries vary in their legal, policing and offender management strategies for combating online sex offending, with very limited knowledge exchange between researchers and practitioners, nationally and internationally. This imposes severe limitations on practitioners’ and policymakers’ ability to access research evidence and to adapt it to their practical interventions in order to more effectively manage and prevent online child sexual offending behaviour.
No coordinated international effort exists to develop strategies for the prevention of online child sex offending or for more effective assessment, treatment and management these behaviours. This lack of emphasis on the development and integration of good practice in the management and prevention of online sex offending imposes severe structural implications for police, the courts, probation, child protection and other actors, who are currently challenged by caseloads and risk-related decisions. Crucially, this absence of a behavioural management focus continues to mar the lives of victims, families and offenders themselves, who struggle to cope with the impact of these behaviours.
The current situation is characterised by a near-absence of international policies or initiatives that could advance such efforts, or otherwise support the transfer of knowledge from the international community of behavioural experts to other stakeholders in the management of online sex offences, such as law enforcement and the Internet industry. Such collaboration would lead to practice improvements in the management and prevention of online sex offending behaviour.
There is a strong need for a permanent platform where academia, practitioners, policy-makers and other stakeholders can come together to articulate their needs and share their knowledge around online sexual offence management and prevention. Such an approach would help to ensure that academic research meaningfully enhances the work of practitioners, and to focus resources where they are most needed. Through its programme of international consultation, the IWG aims to advance such a platform.
The need for strategic resourcing of domain research
Given the mediated and dynamic nature of online sex offending, it is critical that future research addresses changes in supporting technologies, with attention to their differing impact on the modus operandi of online offenders and associated forms of victimisation, on peer-on-peer abuse and exploitation amongst minors, and critically, the management and prevention needs that accompany these developments. Although there is great interest in doing this research, and while substantial research needs have been identified through, for example the work of the IWG, the requisite research funding is not available to support this work.
More child focus
As stakeholders in the problem of online child sexual abuse and exploitation, I believe that researchers and practitioners alike have a duty to be child-focused in their approaches to offence management and prevention, and to bring the voice of the child to bear in relevant programmes and interventions. The need for such a focus has become all the more urgent in recent years with increased production of sexual imagery by children, and with the associated problems of adult and peer abuse that can accompany this behaviour.
These problems, however challenging, necessitate engagement with, and understanding of, children’s experiences of these phenomena, their pathways to engagement in such behaviours, and their needs around prevention and intervention.
Similarly, and perhaps more challenging, is the requirement for secondary prevention of online child sexual abuse and exploitation, which targets individuals ‘at risk’ of committing online child sexual offences. These preventive strategies offer a meaningful potential for the protection and safeguarding of children, in the sense that children may be protected outright from sexual victimisation. The prevention agenda has to extend its focus beyond arrest, prosecution and tertiary prevention strategies once offences have already been committed, to earlier, community-based initiatives. For instance, there should be a parallel focus on targeting undetected CSAM users and initially steering them towards self-management, where criminal justice intervention is not possible.
Academic research is vital to inform these initiatives, and the fight against child sexual abuse and exploitation more generally. However, this cannot be achieved without meaningful and sustained collaboration between researchers, practitioners and policy-makers. With an evidence-led, consensus-based strategy for more effective management and prevention of online offending, one that speaks to the voices of children and young people, and a permanent cross-stakeholder platform to support its practical implementation, more effective approaches to management and prevention may be realised.
 NetClean. (2015). Eleven unbelievable truths. Retrieved from https://www.netclean.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2017/06/The_NetClean_Report_2015.pdf
 The International Workgroup for Best Practice in the Management of Online Sex Offending (IWG) is facilitating the development and distribution of a framework for evidence-led practice in the management of online sex offending behaviour, as well as professional knowledge exchange and collaboration across key stakeholders from academic and clinical research, practitioners and policy-makers concerned with the management of online sexual offending behaviour. Its first report is scheduled for publication in 2018.
About the author
Maggie Brennan is a lecturer at University College Cork, Ireland, a cofounder of the IWG and CyberSafeIreland. Maggie was the research lead on the recent ECPAT-INTERPOL report, ‘Towards a Global Indicator on Unidentified Victims in Child Sexual Exploitation Material’. Her primary research interest relates to online child sexual offending; specifically, to the role of CSAM and online technologies in the offending process, and the impact of this exploitation on victims.