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Where we start matters when it comes to protecting children from harm

08:30am September 04 2023

A child who is sexually abused or exploited is starting from a position of trauma which will have a profound impact on the rest of their life, writes ICMEC Australia CEO Anna Bowden. 

Anna Bowden is chief executive officer for the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children’s Australia mission. The article below explores themes regarding the sexual abuse and exploitation of children. 

The theme of this year’s National Child Protection Week is "Where We Start Matters", and I’ve been reflecting on how critical it is to our work at ICMEC Australia, for the children we exist to help, and for the organisations that work alongside us.

Where we start our lives makes a significant difference to our life outcomes, and a child who is sexually abused or exploited is starting from a position of trauma which will have a profound and lasting impact. 

As a victim-survivor of child sexual abuse myself, I have first-hand experience of these impacts.  It was only later in life that I finally began to acknowledge it and process the events and feelings. 

I’m not alone. On average, it takes around 24 years for a victim-survivor to disclose. And many people never disclose, which means there are thousands of children who are abused and don’t receive any support. Like the man who abused me, those children’s perpetrators can also go undetected for decades.

Considering our own starting position in response to this issue also matters. For those working to fight this crime, it often seems like there are too many starting points. Sadly, the digital age has compounded the problem. For many children their abuse is captured in photos and videos which are then circulated online. The internet also makes it significantly easier for offenders to reach, groom, and violate children.

“Sextortion” on the rise

Cases of ‘sextortion’ - where children are tricked or coerced into sending sexual images of themselves - are reaching epidemic proportions, and can have devastating consequences for those affected. Reports of sextortion to the eSafety Commissioner almost tripled from 600 in the first quarter of 2022 to 1,700 in the same period in 2023.

One thing that sets this crime apart from other forms of child sexual abuse is that it can be financially driven and is often relentlessly pursued by overseas online organised crime networks. Between June and December 2022, as part of an ongoing initiative with AUSTRAC, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) shut down more than 1,000 Australian financial accounts linked to offshore organised syndicates sexually exploiting young people in Australia. 

While statistics show that girls are more likely to be the victim of sexual abuse in general, with more than one in three Australian girls experiencing it, when it comes to financial sextortion cases, offenders are overwhelmingly targeting teen boys and young men. Non-financial sextortion cases, where the blackmailer requests ‘payment’ in the form of providing more sexual images, still predominantly target girls.

Although the perpetrators of these varied crimes have different motivations and tactics, one characteristic they share is that they leave a digital footprint. And this enables law enforcement and financial crime professionals to identify crimes, track down offenders and ultimately identify, and save children.

Australian banks including Westpac are doing important work in this space. But it isn't an easy task. Although the data exists, perpetrators use many tactics and a networked approach to avoid detection. To make matters worse, the transaction amounts involved can seem innocuous, often no more than $30. This makes them very difficult to identify.

To help financial intelligence teams pinpoint more of these transactions and shift the needle on protecting children, the ICMEC Australia Data Products team is developing a first of its kind product in Australia, which will provide clues and indicators of potential cases of child sexual exploitation within financial institution systems.

This product will allow Australian banks to potentially set the global standard in protecting children from crimes like sextortion, which sadly too often can escalate to a young person’s suicide.  

Even with tools like this available to help banks and other financial institutions track down perpetrators, taking a whole-of-community approach is essential. 

It’s important to keep an open dialog with the children in our lives, so they feel they can speak up if something happens. 

However, AFP research indicates that 52 per cent of parents and other carers are not having these conversations with their children.

In the words of ICMEC Australia board director and former Task Force Argos Head, Jon Rouse:

"The most important message I can relay to parents, carers and guardians is that if your child discloses, please believe them, support them, and engage with investigators as soon as possible."

If you do find yourself in the terrible situation of knowing a child who has been targeted, The Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) provides comprehensive advice and information on their website, and suggests following these steps:

- Stop the chat

- Take screen shots

- Block the account

- Report to

Anna is the CEO of the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children's Australia mission. She has previously held roles with the United Nations, the New South Wales Treasury, and Impact Investing Australia. Anna and her team collaborate with financial institutions, law enforcement agencies, child protection NGOs and technology companies to facilitate and develop innovative data and technological solutions to enhance the detection, reporting, prosecution and prevention of child sexual exploitation.

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