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The grooming of children and soliciting of sexual images from them is on the rise, according to authorities.
5 to 11 September marks National Child Protection Week, and authorities are using the child abuse awareness-raising campaign to highlight the disturbing increase in predatory behaviours taking place online through social media, messaging and gaming platforms.
“Almost every second day, the AFP reveals another offender has been charged with online child sexual abuse-related charges,” Australian Federal Police Assistant Commissioner Lesa Gale wrote in an open letter to Australian parents.
The Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation recorded over 22,000 reports between July 2020 and June 2021. Yet a NSW Crime Stoppers survey of over 1,000 parents found that while over 93.6 percent of parents were concerned about the prospect of strangers approaching their children online, 26.5 percent thought it unlikely. 16.7 percent believed there was no risk at all.
Grooming is a criminal offence in all Australian states and territories. It’s a separate offence from child abuse, meaning that a person can be guilty of grooming without child abuse taking place. Offenders don’t conform to a single stereotype. They can be of any age, gender or background.
The risks of grooming and predatory behaviours have only increased as children spend more time online due to the pandemic. As eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant notes, “We’ve all turned to the internet during this pandemic to help us continue to work, learn, communicate and be entertained but with all this extra time we are spending online, often unsupervised, the risk that something can go wrong increases too.” Online offenders have become increasingly sophisticated in their grooming techniques, adapting to an environment in which children are spending more time online. By exchanging just a few sentences, they can solicit sexual imagery.
It's not only online behaviours that have caused concern about children’s welfare during the pandemic. There are more general fears that child abuse and neglect are taking place behind closed doors and going unreported.
Suspicions of these behaviours are often raised by childcare centres, schools and other services that children may be exposed to. However, at a time when there are ongoing restrictions to people’s movements and interactions, suspicious conduct may go unchecked.
A 2021 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report observes, “All families experience some challenges when caring for their children, but the COVID-19 pandemic may have made some more vulnerable. While this does not necessarily mean a child will be harmed, these factors may have some effect on the likelihood of child abuse and neglect occurring.”
Everyone in society has a role to play in keeping children safe and free from harm. That’s not only a moral obligation; it’s a legal requirement.
Queensland is the latest state to join a growing number of states and territories with criminal laws in place that require adults to report sexual offending against children. Such laws are part of an ongoing conversation and redress about reportable conduct following the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, established in 2013.
As AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw has said on the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation podcast Closing the Net, “We need to do more, not just in our arrest rate and in our interventions, but in the prevention, education and awareness to make sure we keep our children safe online.”
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