Part 2 in a two-part series
"Child abuse casts a shadow the length of a lifetime."
- Herbert Ward, Episcopalian priest
We've all been disturbed by the child sexual abuse cases that have come out of this province, usually involving adults in a position of trust.
It's horrible enough to think that there are people out there with no qualms about causing innocent children to suffer excruciating trauma and pain. What's worse is that there are people who aren't content to satisfy their own deviant pleasures, but who figure they might as well turn a tidy profit while they're at it.
"Sex sells," goes the old advertising slogan.
So does sexploitation, unfortunately.
Cybertip.ca is a national clearinghouse for reports of children being sexually exploited and assaulted online. It is run by the Manitoba-based Canadian Centre for Child Protection, a charitable organization.
When Cybertip.ca receives a complaint that suspected child pornography has been discovered on the Internet, its trained analysts check out the site and, in cases where sexual exploitation involving children has occurred, it contacts the appropriate police jurisdiction.
In a disturbing report published late in 2009, titled Child Sexual Abuse Images, the tipline reviewed all of the public reports it received from Sept. 26, 2002 to March 31, 2009.
The report considered "15,662 incidents relating to websites hosting child sexual abuse images" and assessed 4,110 unique images.
These are the kinds of images Const. Ed Billard of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary's Child Exploitation Unit grapples with on the job.
"Quite often there's a reason why these (exploited) children are vulnerable," he said.
Billard says parents need to do everything they can to prevent their children from being targeted by sexual predators, whether in their neighbourhood or online.
In either case, the potential is there for the child to be exploited over and over again, if the sexual abuse leads to the creation of electronic images or sounds.
Swapping photos or videos involving the sexual depiction of children should not be written off as just being some creep's depraved hobby.
"Child pornography is a permanent record of the sexual abuse of a child," the Cybertip report says.
Among the profoundly troubling findings: "Most concerning is the severity of abuse depicted, with over 35 per cent of all images showing serious sexual assaults. ... These statistics challenge the misconception that child pornography consists largely of innocent or harmless nude photographs of children."
The report is full of stats, and it can be hard to process them all, particularly when you consider that each number represents a living, breathing young victim.
But if we are to realize and acknowledge the scope of the problem, we have to come to grips with the staggering numbers.
Of the images analyzed for the report, roughly 36 per cent showed children being sexually abused, while 64 per cent showed them deliberately posed in a sexualized way.
Nearly 60 per cent involved children under eight, including babies and toddlers.
Approximately 83 per cent of the children in the images were girls.
Nearly 70 per cent of the children being abused through extreme sexual assaults - including bestiality, bondage and torture - were under the age of eight.
And the images are getting more and more disturbing.
"The damage inflicted by child sexual abuse on the self-image of a child can be severe," the report notes. "... When considering all images reviewed by Cybertip.ca since 2002, the severity of the abuse and the level of objectification and dehumanization appears to be increasing in the images. For example, analysts have more recently noted images of children with demeaning words or phrases written on their bodies. Also, children are sometimes seen holding signs with messages greeting (pornography purchasers) by their online pseudonyms or praising their abusers."
Billard said the key to protecting children is for parents to be vigilant.
This is not to suggest there's a bogeyman in every closet, but some practical steps can help reduce the risk of a child being confronted by one.
"Controlling the technology, as a parent, is a good start," he said. "(So is) informing the child of all forms of sexual exploitation that exist."
Let's face it, if your child doesn't have access to a webcam, digital camera or cellphone camera, they can't send images of themselves to strangers.
"A lot of technology is not being given age-appropriately," Billard said. "It's the same as with ATVs. The only difference is that children aren't dying on the Internet - though the risk of that is there."
Kids can be targeted in various ways, such as interactive "live" computer games, intercepted instant messaging, the use of animated characters - avatars - to engage a child in conversation and gain their trust, or social networking sites like Facebook.
"When I'm doing image categorization," Billard said, "I'm seeing a lot of teenage girls on webcams ... engaging in regrettable actions - exposing themselves, masturbation, what have you - obviously at the request of someone on the other end, and those images are being copied and shared.
"You hear the same old thing (from parents): 'We never thought it would happen to us!'"
Billard said teenagers commonly engage in naughty talk, sexting and other risquÉ behaviours online with their peers, perhaps as a means of pushing boundaries. There's a huge difference between that sort of activity and the sexual abuse of children. But he worries those teens could end up being victimized, too, if what they think is private communication gets passed around online.
"We're not going to go out and turn teenagers into sex offenders," he said. "They're not sexual predators. But personal property becomes problematic the moment it's distributed."
Like others in the field of child protection and law-enforcement, Billard believes children need to be educated about sexual abuse at an early age.
"If you're talking (to your children) about sexual abuse, start early. ..."
The main thing parents should know is who their child is interacting with, both in real life and in the virtual world.
In Corner Brook recently, when an astute games arcade employee spotted an Australian man behaving inappropriately with a local teenager, the police were called, triggering a well-oiled response that led to the man being apprehended and subsequently convicted.
"Early detection prevented it from turning out for the worse," Billard said.
Last month, federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson introduced Bill C22, legislation that would make it mandatory for Internet service providers to report child pornography.
That bill has gone through its first reading and we can only hope it doesn't suffer the same fate as its predecessor, Bill C58, which died when Parliament was prorogued in December.
As Billard says, there's no magic bullet when it comes to preventing child predation and the proliferation of child pornography.
But it sure helps if we're all paying attention.
Pam Frampton, The Telegram's story editor, welcomes comments by e-mail to email@example.com or online at www.thetelegram.com. Pam writes a food blog at wininganddiningwithpam.blogspot.com.
Controlling the technology, as a parent, is a good start. (So is) informing the child of all forms of sexual exploitation that exist. ... A lot of technology is not being given age-appropriately.
RNC Const. Ed Billard
The top 5 risks to Canadian children on the Internet are:
1. Sexual offenders targeting online games that have chat rooms, including interactive web games, computer and console games.
2. Sexual offenders hijacking instant messaging accounts and coercing children/adolescents to send nude or partially clothed images of themselves. Between 2005 and 2006, reports of this threat doubled.
3. Sexual offenders using 3D animated characters, referred to as avatars, to engage children/adolescents in online conversations.
4. Sexual offenders targeting social networking sites where children/adolescents are encouraged to create online diaries and connect.
5. Youth sending nude images to peers without understanding that the images can be forwarded or permanently posted online.
"If a parent thinks their child is not in immediate danger but they suspect there has been an exchange of messages with an untoward adult, they should contact cybertip.ca," says Const. Ed Billard of the RNC's Child Exploitation Unit. "If there is immediate danger - someone's on their way to Newfoundland to make contact with a child - contact the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary immediately."