This post contains mentions of child abuse and might be triggering for some readers.
Imagine it’s six o’clock in the morning and you open the door to six plain clothes detectives. They seize every computer, phone and electronic device in your family home – even your kid’s Playstation. Your husband is being investigated for his involvement with child sexual abuse material. Instantly, your world turns upside down.
Everyone around you asks, ‘How did you not know?’
Now imagine this happens during the COVID-19 pandemic and you are in lockdown with your partner and children. How do you seek help when you are forced to stay at home together with the perpetrator?
Before the virus started its rapid spread around the globe, Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton gave a speech on March 5 stating “…every five minutes a webpage shows a child being sexually abused. Australia, I’m sorry to say, contributes to the epidemic of child sexual abuse.”
Until recently, this figure used to be every seven minutes – so time is ticking down. More people are looking at child exploitation material more often. The truth is that the production and distribution of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) are relentlessly increasing, both globally and in Australia. These images and videos are shared and shared again, creating a permanent digital record exacerbating the violation.
In 2018, nearly 18,000 reports of child exploitation were received by the Australian Federal Police. This is nearly double the previous year. Each report can contain hundreds and thousands of images and videos.
The area of child sexual abuse material that is growing the quickest is self-produced. This isn’t teenagers sexting nudes to their boyfriends. This is perpetrators grooming young people online, pretending to be someone they are not, getting the first image and then threatening the child to extort more graphic images and videos including live streams (this is sometimes called ‘sextortion’).
Sometimes people say to me, “What’s the big deal? He’s just looking.” However, child sexual abuse material is never ‘just looking.’ Each image and video represents a crime scene of a child being sexually abused.
You may also be aware that a few days ago, Australian Federal Police were part of a massive CSAM bust across five states. Sixteen people have been charged with 738 child exploitation and sexual abuse offences following a two year investigation. Four children were rescued.
My interest in this area is personal. Eighteen years ago, I was the innocent partner of a man who viewed child abuse material.
From my own experience and from hearing many stories, I can tell you that instead of finding support in the community, non-offending partners are frequently shamed, stigmatised and shunned.
These women are often named in the media, as if guilty of his crimes. People ask about their sex lives – were they normal? – and they wonder how it’s possible she didn’t know what he was up to (the implication is that’s she’s complicit).
In response, let me ask YOU a question: Do you know what your partner is doing on his or her phone 24/7?
I didn’t. And so many other partners and children of CSAM perpetrators don’t either. This might surprise you, but Australian Institute of Criminology research indicates the likelihood of the perpetrator having an intimate partner is as high as 65 per cent and that up to 47 per cent have children.
This is why I founded PartnerSPEAK. So the families of these child abusers wouldn’t be so alone. We work with the non-offending partners of the perpetrators of child sexual abuse material. We also work hand-in-hand with law enforcement to end child exploitation; we want perpetrators brought to justice.
Just to give you an idea of the personal impacts of these crimes, one of the partners we supported recently explained the extent of her distress to me. She worried that her former partner, Michael (not his real name), had not only viewed CSAM, but may have also abused her children.
“I trusted him and I allowed him into mine and my children’s lives. You always think as a parent that the threats to your children are outside the safety of your home, I never imagined that falling in love with someone would bring that threat inside my home. It is almost impossible to explain the depth of the trauma a parent feels knowing that their choices may have put their own children at risk.
“The impact of Michael’s deceit will stay with me forever. While I am working hard to move on with my life and get past what happened it is still a constant challenge; I find it incredibly difficult to trust people now.
“After what happened I was diagnosed with PTSD and at times I struggle with everyday life; I have difficulty sleeping; I suffer from nightmares as well as regular episodes of depression and attacks of anxiety.”
Now let’s get back to this pandemic. Perpetration of this heinous child abuse is increasing right now as I type this. We’ve got more child victims in houses all over our suburbs. And also, in our neighbourhoods, we’ve got more non-offending partners – secondary victims in these crimes.
You know what else? Those same women are currently stuck at home with the perpetrators. Just like current domestic violence victims, it’s therefore much harder for them to reach out to us. (We are the only organisation of our kind in the country.)
As well as getting this information out there – so affected family members know where they can turn – I’m also hoping there will be adequate injection of federal funding in response to this CSAM pandemic that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused.
Natalie Walker is the CEO of PartnerSPEAK, which provides advocacy and peer support for partners and families of perpetrators of child abuse material.
Visit the PartnerSPEAK website and peer support forum here.
Contact the PartnerSPEAK Peerline: 1300 590 589 (Please check website for hours)
All peer support is offered by fully trained individuals with the lived experience of having an intimate partner or close family member involved in child sexual abuse material.
If you are concerned about the welfare of a child you can get advice from the Child Abuse Protection Hotline by calling 1800 688 009, or visiting their website. You can also call the 24-hour Child Abuse Report Line (131 478).