- The authors of a report are calling for changes to Queensland law that could help "disrupt" child exploitation offenders
- The Child Next Door report warns child exploitation and trafficking is difficult to monitor
- Police say the nature of the crimes and the ages of the victims can make it difficult to prosecute offenders
A report from a child safety expert has prompted a warning that potentially large numbers of young people could be being exploited by sexual predators in Queensland.
The Child Next Door report, published late last year, relies on information and case studies provided by frontline care staff involved with the region's Child Sexual Exploitation Working Group, involving welfare agencies and police.
Paul Morton, who works for the organisation that commissioned the report, Integrated Family and Youth Services (IFYS), said it was difficult to know exactly how many young people were being exploited or abused because so many were too frightened to seek support or justice.
"We're talking potentially dozens, if not 100 young people that are involved in it," he said.
"[They're] generally under the age of 18, young people being trafficked and exploited around."
Acting Detective Inspector of Crime Services Phil Hurst said child sexual exploitation was "desperately under-reported".
"We regularly get reports of kids that are exploited and abused [and] these are followed up usually by people in the Child Protection Investigation Unit," he said.
"I think it is a concern that there may be a whole lot more going on that police aren't aware of."
PHOTO: Paul Morton would like to see Queensland's laws updated to better protect children. (ABC News: Owen Jacques)
Barriers to prosecution
One of the case studies included in the report involves a 15-year-old who was locked in a car and driven between Rockhampton and Byron Bay where her sexual abuse was filmed, then distributed.
Personal information about the victim and others in the report have been removed given their young age.
Det Insp. Hurst, who has worked in the Queensland Police Child Protection Investigation Unit for more than two decades, said police could not always stop child exploitation, even after it had been reported.
PHOTO: Detective Inspector Phil Hurst says child exploitation is "desperately underreported". (ABC News: Owen Jacques)
That is because once a child reaches 16, they are legally allowed to make their own decisions about sex and consent — even if their abuser is using alcohol, drugs, or coercion.
"Due to the nature of sexual offending, there are usually only two people there — the offender and the victim," Det Insp. Hurst said.
"At times there is no forensic evidence, no witnesses, and there's no other cooperation we can get."
In those instances it makes it difficult — though, as Det Insp Hurst stresses, not impossible — to prosecute.
Report author Conrad Townson, a child abuse expert who chaired the working group, said abusers created distance between the victim and their friends and family, enabling them to then refuse help from authorities.
"The perpetrator works to actually create distance between the young person and any protective people in their lives," he said.
"They'll end up relying and dependent on the perpetrator, where they actually don't have a choice over what they're made to do."
Time to change the law?
In 2014, Victoria introduced so-called "disruption" laws targeting potential offenders and putting pressure on them to sever a relationship.
The State's Department of Health And Human Services, along with police, can use harbouring notices, no-contact notices, and intervention orders against people deemed persons of interest.
Mr Morton would like to see Queensland laws updated to help authorities interrupt abusers.
"Is a review of the current legislation required?" he said.
"We think so."
In a statement, Queensland Shadow Attorney-General, David Janetzki, said that "all too often, offenders are not held to account".
"The LNP is supportive of measures that aim to disrupt child sexual exploitation and protection children from harm," the statement said.
Mr Janetzki also called on the Queensland Government to ensure its laws were "up to scratch" to ensure the safety of children.
A spokesman for Attorney-General Yvette D'Ath did not respond to questions about a possible review of legislation that would allow authorities to intervene sooner, but said the Queensland Government has a "zero tolerance approach" to child sexual abuse.
Det Insp. Hurst said while he was familiar with the disruption laws, he had never worked with them.
"Anything that the government brings in that would assist us in relation to keeping children safe, we would happily encourage," he said.
Mr Morton said there were many groups on the side of at-risk kids, but more support was needed.
"There are lots of people in the world that I live in working with good people and they do everything to make it a better place," he said.
"But we will always have an element of people who will exploit other people for their own gain."