Police and a child protection charity are warning that coronavirus lockdown is “likely to lead to an increased risk of child sexual abuse in Northern Ireland”.
A number of factors are being flagged as contributing to a rise in the viewing of indecent images of children and online grooming.
They include children spending less time in school and more time at home and online, many parents having limited time to supervise their children online and/or not understanding the possible dangers, and people who pose a danger to children also spending more time at home and online.
In response, the PSNI is promoting Stop It Now! UK and Ireland’s campaign to raise awareness of the risks, the law and the consequences of offending.
Detective Chief Superintendent Anthony McNally, Head of the PSNI’s Public Protection Branch, said: “Figures released today show that 1,460 people from Northern Ireland contacted the Stop It Now! helpline and self-help website in 2019 to address their risky and illegal behaviour.
“However when online offending takes place police will take robust action against those involved in suspected criminal behaviour.
“In 2019/20 detectives in the Police Service NI’s Child Protection Team carried out 87 searches and made 47 arrests in relation to this devastating crime, with 121 searches and 79 arrests in 2018/19 and 158 searches and 87 arrests in 2017/18.”
The Stop It Now! website and helpline, run by the Lucy Faithfull Foundation which dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse, provides self-help information to people worried about their own behaviour and also to their families or friends.
The anonymous and confidential helpline is run by a team of trained advisors, and callers agree actions they will take to stop their illegal online behaviour in both the short and long term.
Helpline advisors also explore with callers – both those offending and their adult family members – the possibility of any direct risks to children, including in the caller’s own family, to ensure those children are protected.
Calls remain confidential and anonymous, unless identifying details are given and a child is in danger or a crime has been committed – then the information is shared with appropriate agencies.
Stop It Now! also provides support and advice to parents and professionals worried about child sexual abuse and its prevention.
DCS McNally added: “During these unprecedented times of the Covid-19 pandemic, people are spending more time at home, which can create potentially risk inducing situations.
“As a police service, we want to protect children who are at risk of sexual abuse.
“If potential offenders can be aware of their triggers and seek help through either the Stop It Now! helpline or website to cease their offending for good, then more children will have been prevented from becoming victims of sexual abuse and spared the pain and emotional and physical suffering.
“However, if a child is the victim of sexual abuse, call 999 and police will take action to protect the youngster and arrest the perpetrator. Children deserve to grow up free from fear and abuse.”
Earlier this year, the National Crime Agency reported that it believes there are at least 300,000 individuals in the UK who pose a sexual threat to children, either through physical abuse or online.
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