Early intervention strategies for online child exploitation
CORK, Ireland – When Ethel Quayle sat down to devise an approach to the problem of child exploitation on the Internet, she was aware that millions of people in cyberspace might be seeking help. But Dr. Quayle was not directly targeting children who were being exploited.
Instead, she helped create an innovative, web-based, self-exploration site aimed at anyone worried about their own online behavior.
The approach the psychology lecturer and her team (based at University College Cork) devised is called CROGA. The CROGA website offers a safe, step-by-step method of encouraging users to explore whether they might have a problemmatic interest in child-exploitation material. If the user is already accessing such material, the method can help them face the reality of what they are doing and offer them ways of dealing with it.
Stopping offenders before they start
Dr. Quayle says it’s not a surprise that many people are aware they may be offending or about to offend online – and that they want to stop or seek help before they start.
“We know from research that a lot of people are using exploitative material not only sexually, but also because it helps them avoid difficult feelings, as a kind of escapism. The sad reality is that, whether we like it or not, there are a very large number of people out there doing things sexually online, which are not considered normal, in spite of legislation, education and increased police activity.”
The idea that people who offend online could be helped online seems obvious, but in fact, this kind of web-based approach is only in its infancy. The fact that it offers complete anonymity for users suggests it might be a successful method of early intervention for potential offenders.
“We knew that there were lots of people out there who may have been looking for help,” Dr. Quayle explains. “But of course, the mandatory reporting obligation in Ireland and in the United Kingdom means that by seeking help you are effectively admitting guilt. So a way of talking about your behavior without coming in contact with the authorities was needed.”
CROGA users pass through an ‘anonymising’ process in which their identity is removed and there is no way of tracing them.
For the past year, CROGA has been managed and hosted by the Lucy Faithfull Foundation which also manages the Stop It Now campaign, an initiative to raise awareness about child sexual abuse in the UK and Ireland. Callers to the campaign’s helpline are encouraged to use CROGA if they are worried they may be about to offend.
Senior Psychologist Dr. Jeanine De Volder spends most of her days treating sexual offenders at the Granada Institute in Dublin. “Many of my clients explain that even as they were offending all they wanted was help but didn’t know where to access it,” she says.
Dr. De Volder believes that self-exploration sites like CROGA could be very useful in helping offenders or potential offenders take the first step to determine if they are at risk of offending. “I think it would be particularly useful for teenagers or younger men who are displaying unhealthy sexualized behavior.”
However, Dr. De Volder also cautions that face-to-face treatment is particularly important for online offenders, as they are even more likely than so-called ‘contact’ offenders to have problems forming healthy relationships.
‘Drive home the message’
Those involved directly in the treatment of sex offenders are not the only ones enthusiastic about stopping potential offenders in their tracks. Michael Moran is a detective with the Gardai – the Irish police force – seconded to INTERPOL in Lyon, France, where he specializes in the problems of online child exploitation.
“We need to drive home the message that viewing child exploitation material is not simply voyeurism. Rather, there is a direct connection between it and the abuse of a child,” says Mr. Moran.
From experience, the detective believes the kind of self-exploration tools devised by Dr. Quayle and her colleagues can have an impact. Mr. Moran also believes that many would benefit hugely from early intervention, education and awareness to avoid, as he puts it, “getting caught in the Web.”
By Aoife Kavanagh
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