Child abusers have created and shared an online grooming manual describing ways to manipulate and exploit the increased number of children at home and online during Covid-19, Australia’s e-safety commissioner has said.
Covid-19 restrictions have coincided with a significant increase in reports to the eSafety Office about child sexual abuse material, Julie Inman Grant told Guardian Australia. She said investigators had seen a jump in searches by predators on the dark web seeking information on how to abuse children.
“I think of it like bees in a hive, gathering around the honey,” Inman Grant said. “Abusers see Covid-19 as a honey pot for them, with at-risk boys and girls spending much more time at home and online, often without supervision, and often while feeling isolated and lonely.”
The Covid-19 predator handbook contained details about how to coerce children online to share sexual images and videos of themselves, she said. “The handbook advises predators to get their kicks online rather than trying to meet children face-to-face because of restrictions and heightened vigilance of law enforcement on the streets,” Inman Grant said.
Investigators had seen a marked increase in a phenomena known as “capping”, she said, where abusers took screenshots during explicit video calls and live streams with minors, and then circulated them widely or used them to coerce children.
There was an average of 670 reports per month to the commission in 2019. Data provided by the commissioner to Guardian Australia shows child sexual abuse material reports increased 27% in March and 37% in April 2020. While reports of abuse had been steadily increasing before Covid-19 restrictions, Inman Grant said there was no doubt the pandemic had contributed in part, while raising the risk of children being abused online.
“More disturbing than the stats, perhaps, is that our investigators have also seen increased chat on forums on the dark web from predators talking about how with isolation measures in place, they have greater opportunities to contact children remotely to groom them for sexual exploitation, while others observe that they have more time to abuse children,” a spokeswoman from the eSafety Office said.
“We’ve picked up other users commenting that Covid-19 is bringing more youth online to platforms such as YouTube, vlog sites, online challenges and Omegle, creating more opportunity to groom them.”
A spokesman for the Australian federal police, which runs the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation, said the organisation regularly saw cases involving children and young people being targeted through social networking, image or video-sharing apps or instant messaging, where offenders encouraged the children to self-produce online exploitation material. The centre’s past six months of data show reports between October 2019 and March 2020 increased by 123% compared with the same period the previous year.
“This increased the average number of reports from 776 report per month to 1,731 reports per month,” the AFP spokesman said.
“It is important to make children feel comfortable to approach you or another trusted adult if something isn’t right to help them deal with the issue, rather than the technology. Children may be reluctant to report issues online if they believe they will be punished or have their devices taken away.
“Supervision is recommended for younger children as well as encouraging your child to apply critical thinking skills, like questioning suspicious behaviour or ‘friend’ requests from other users online.”
Child abuse crimes were “devastating for victims and their families”, he said.
Jessie Smith (not her real name) is a peer support worker with PartnerSPEAK, Australia’s only not-for-profit organisation that supports people whose partners have been caught with child abuse material. She said the spouses of those caught abusing were also at risk during Covid-19. In recent weeks, Smith said she had taken calls from women whose homes had been raided by police and their partners interrogated during Covid-19 restrictions.
In April, 16 people across five states were charged with more than 700 child exploitation offences after a two-year investigation involving Australian authorities and US Homeland Security investigators. Reports of child sexual abuse material have increased 106% in the US since the pandemic restrictions began. Smith said alleged perpetrators were often released back to their homes while police continued investigations.
“Half a dozen officers arrive with a search warrant to go through their house and to interview the suspect,” Smith said. “After the initial interview they’re rereleased back into the home and these frightened women are in a situation where the financial and practical implications of leaving are exacerbated because of the pandemic and they may struggle to call for help because the abuser is there with them.” PartnerSPEAK has launched a new webchat to make it easier and safer for affected family members to contact the organisation during the pandemic.
Smith’s own partner was jailed several years ago after being found guilty of sexually abusing her two children, including recording the offending. Smith found a video of the abuse on his phone and took it straight to police. While her then partner was being interviewed by police, she packed up her children into the car and left. “I had less than a two-hour head start to run while he was being interviewed, and I had no money because he controlled the finances,” she said. When the police interview finished he was given money for a meal and a train ticket.
But leaving would be difficult for victims during lockdown, she said, particularly if their support networks were interstate or overseas. Abusers who had been furloughed during the pandemic, but whose partners had not, might now also be the primary carers for children, giving them more opportunity to offend, she said, a concern shared by Inman Grant.
“Many women and children feel they have nowhere to go,” Smith said. “Whereas women would have previously sought support for themselves from their community, that community support system has fallen down at the moment. I have no doubt if I had of been forced to stay home with my partner after I found out, he would have killed me.”
Smith said most offenders producing and sharing child abuse material were men, and half of those perpetrators had families and children. Children were most likely to be abused or neglected by parents or caregivers.
“My concerns are that these children will be exposed to things during lockdown that might previously have been more difficult for their abusers to get away with,” she said. “They have more access to children. Before lockdown, we had layers of protection from teachers, doctors and others who may notice something wrong.
“Those protections are gone for many children.”