Australia facing ‘tsunami’ of child abuse

In his day-to-day work, Constable Tom Clayworth deals with some of humanity’s worst people – the sickest predators preying on society’s most vulnerable children.

Despite common misconceptions, he warns that most “wouldn’t do a double take on the street.”

Some predators are charmers, others are “seemingly normal,” and they vary from young to old.

They are also informed enough to target children where they least expect it.

“There’s a certain stereotype that many child sex offenders are some creepy old dude that exists in some dark corner of the internet. That’s not the case,” Const Clayworth told AAP.

“We’ve had people who are university students… people who are unemployed, people who are employed. So there’s really no ‘type’.”

Const Clayworth, 29, has been an investigator with the Australian Federal Police’s Brisbane-based child exploitation team for nearly three years.

The AFP-run Australian Center for Combating Child Exploitation was established in 2018 and has broken records for online reports of child exploitation every year since. Reports have more than doubled since its inception.

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In the last financial year, the center processed 36,600 online child abuse reports – more than 60 percent more than in the previous year with 22,600 reports.

In 2021/22, AFP arrested more than 230 people and filed more than 2030 child abuse charges. More than 110 children, including some in Australia and some abroad, have been saved from harm as a result of these screenings.

dr But Gemma McKibbin, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne, an expert who leads the Disrupting Child Exploitation project, warns that the reports are “just the tip of the iceberg”.

“We are facing a tsunami of child exploitation online,” she said.

“Perpetrators have really figured out how to use social media and other types of networking platforms to target children.”

The center has linked the surge in reports to better detection and greater community awareness. However, Const Clayworth mirrors the concern of Dr. McKibbin echoes that predators tailor their offenses to children based on “what’s in fashion.”

This includes online gaming like Minecraft and Fortnite to social media platforms like Facebook and TikTok.

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Predators don’t hide in “obscure, shady websites” or in closed communities, Const Clayworth warns.

“(As) more and more young people are getting online (and) developing devices and technology…criminals are just going to take advantage of that – it’s what they do.”

He has also seen more self-produced material about child abuse being disseminated by criminals.

Children can be manipulated or blackmailed into producing content, and Dr. McKibbin says violent threats of violence, along with deep embarrassment and shame, can deter children from speaking up about their abuse.

“They are ashamed that they are being made to videotape these often highly degrading sexual acts,” she said.

According to Const Clayworth, predators have attempted to use the COVID-19 pandemic “as a means of accessing children,” but investigators have continued to hunt and prosecute them anyway.

As he and his team deal with the trauma of being constantly exposed to child abuse content that can only be described as “terrible,” he sweats it out at the gym and knows he can discuss things with his fiancée.

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“Also the team here is a very strong, cohesive team… it’s a really big element in terms of how we (day to day) go about things,” said Const Clayworth.

“There are strategies and things we do to try and minimize your exposure, such as not watching some of the videos with sound.”

dr McKibbin believes social media companies have “dirty hands” when it comes to “enabling” child sexual abuse and that reform is needed to stop the spread of such material online.

Under online safety laws passed last year, industry groups have had to create codes to reduce the risk of illegal and harmful content online, including child sexual exploitation material.

The codes are open to public feedback and the eSafety Commissioner will review them later this year before ticking them off for implementation.

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