Protecting Children Online

Scope of the procedure

As technology develops, the internet can be accessed through various devises including mobile phones, text messaging, mobile camera phones as well as computers and games consoles. As a result, the internet has become a significant tool in the distribution of indecent photographs and videos of children and young people.

Internet chat rooms, forums and bulletin boards are used as a means of contacting children with a view to grooming them for inappropriate or abusive relationships which may include requests to make or transmit pornographic images of themselves or to perform sexual acts live in front of a web cam.

Contacts made initially in a chat room are likely to be carried on via email, instant messaging services, mobile phone and text messaging. There is a growing cause for concern about the exposure of children to inappropriate material via interactive communication technology e.g., adult pornography and extreme forms of obscene material.

There is some evidence that people found in possession of indecent photographs or film/videos of children may now or in the future be involved directly in child abuse themselves. When someone is considered to have placed or accessed such material on the internet, the police should consider the potential for the individual to be involved in the active abuse of children.

In particular the individual's access to children should be established within their family, their employment and in other settings such as voluntary work with children.

It should be born in mind that any indecent, obscene image of a child has by its nature, involved a person, who in creating that image has been party to abusing that child.

Grooming - Sexual Offences Act 2003

Section 15 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 makes it an offence for a person aged 18 or over to meet intentionally, or to travel with the intention of meeting a child under 16 in any part of the world, if he has met or communicated with that child on at least two earlier occasions, and intends to commit a "relevant offence" against that child either at the time of the meeting or on a subsequent occasion. An offence is not committed if the adult reasonably believes the child to be 16 or over.

The section is intended to cover situations where an adult establishes contact with a child through for example, communications on the internet and gains the child's trust and confidence so that he can arrange to meet the child for the purpose of committing a "relevant offence" against the child.

The course of conduct prior to the meeting that triggers the offence may have an explicitly sexual content, such as the adult entering into conversations with the child about sexual acts he wants to engage him/her in when they meet, or sending images of adult pornography.  However, the prior meetings or communication need not have an explicitly sexual content and could for example simply be the adult giving swimming lessons or meeting him/her incidentally through a friend.

The offence will be complete either when, following the earlier communications the adult meets the child or travels to meet the child with the intent to commit a relevant offence against the child.  The intended offence does not have to take place.

The evidence of the adults intent to commit an offence may be drawn from the communications between the adult and the child before the meeting or may be drawn from other circumstances, for example if the adult travels to the meeting with ropes, condoms and lubricants.

Subsection (2) (a) provides that adult's previous meetings or communications with the child can have taken place in or across any part of the world.  This would cover emailing the child from abroad, speaking on the telephone abroad, or meeting the child abroad.  The travel to the meeting itself must at least partly take place in England or Wales or Northern Ireland.

Agency policies and procedure re indecent images of a child

All member LSCB organisations should have a clear set of policies and procedures in place, backed up with guidance and training, addressing the issue of employees accessing illegal child pornography. Managers have a clear understanding of what procedure to follow should they be informed that one of their staff members is suspected of accessing such images on a works computer.

It is a criminal act under Section 1 of the Protection of Children Act 1978 for any person to make and distribute indecent images of children. These are arrestable offences.

Immediate action and referral

Upon receipt of information concerning a person suspected of this kind of activity, the agency should notify the police immediately. No downloading or distribution of any images should be completed, either internally or externally within the organisation, as this will leave these individuals responsible open to criminal investigation.

The computer should be left and not used by anyone, allowing this to be seized for forensic examination by the police. The details of all persons having access to the computer should be made available to allow a clear evidence trail to be established.

Procedures for Police Officers

Police Officers involved in a case involving abusive images of children (including making or taking images, or distribution or possession) or a case of grooming/sexual abuse of a child, must without delay:

  • Ascertain whether there are children or young people in the family/household of the suspect;
  • Ascertain whether the suspect has access to other children or young people, such as through work or voluntary activities.

In the following circumstances, Police Officers are to refer to Police Protecting Vulnerable Persons Unit (PVP) immediately, in order that protection and welfare issues can be addressed for the children or young people involved:

  • There is an identified child or young person who has been the subject of abusive images
  • There is an identified child or young person who has been groomed/sexually abused
  • There is a child or young person in the family/household of the suspect
  • There are children or young people, outside the family/household, to whom the suspect has significant access
  • The suspect is a child or young person under the age of 18.

Police Protecting Vulnerable Persons Unit are to follow the inter-agency procedures below.

Where a Child/Young Person is subject of Abusive Images

In all cases, wherever a child or young person is identified as having been the subject of one or more abusive images (whether or not this relates to the Internet):

  • The child or young person is to be referred to Children's Social Care;
  • The referral is to be classed as requiring a child protection response;
  • A Strategy Meeting is to be held;
  • Child protection (Section 47) enquiries and core assessment are to be undertaken by Children's Social Care;
  • A Police investigation should be considered;
  • The child or young person should be offered counselling/therapeutic services.

Where Child/Young Person subject to Grooming/Sexual Abuse

Concerning any particular child, the grooming may come to light at a very early stage or it may have reached the point where the child or young person has met the suspect and been sexually abused.

PVP Police Officers must:

  • Refer any child or young person who has been sexually abused, or where there appear to be protection needs, to Social Services;
  • Consider the welfare needs of the child or young person and whether a referral is needed to Children's Social Care for support services.

Children's Social Care are to apply child protection procedures where necessary.

Child in the Family/Household of Suspect

Wherever there is a child or young person in the family or household of a person suspected of involvement in abusive images of children or of grooming/sexually abusing a child: 

  • The child or young person is to be referred to Children's Social Care;
  • The referral is to be classed as requiring a child protection response;
  • A Strategy Meeting is to be held;
  • Child protection (Section 47) enquiries and core assessment are to be undertaken.

Where computers have been seized and extensive forensic work is to be undertaken, it will not always be possible for the Police to work within normal timescales for investigations.  This may affect the timescales expected of Children's Social Care for undertaking child protection enquiries and assessment, in which case, Children's Social Care should record the reasons for delay.

Other Children to whom the Suspect has Access

Protective action is to be taken wherever a person suspected of involvement in abusive images of children or the grooming/sexual abuse of a child or young person, is found to have significant access to other children, for example through work or voluntary activities.

Planning should take place between a Senior Manager in Children's Social Care and the Detective Chief Inspector/Detective Inspector for Police PVP. Legal advice should be sought, where necessary, in relation to matters of disclosure. 

Suspect Employed by LSCB Agency

Where the suspect is employed by, or a volunteer or foster carer, for an LSCB agency, the procedures to be followed are given 'allegations against childcare professionals' procedures.

Suspected Abuse by Young Person

Where a young person under the age of 18 is suspected of involvement in perpetrating abuse through abusive images or of grooming/sexual abuse, a referral about this young person is to be made to Children's Social Care.

Thereafter the procedures for "Sexual abuse by Children and Young People"  are to be followed.

Secure Storage of Material

The professionals involved should reach an expedited agreement as to the arrangements for the secure storage and preservation of the material.

In appropriate cases consideration should be given as to the need to seek judicial guidance on the handling of any images or other material to ensure no inadvertent commission of criminal offences.

The Strategy Meeting

Issues to consider include:

  • Is the child at immediate risk of significant harm e.g., the child in the image or a child in the household?
  • Are there other children visiting the household?
  • Is the child about to meet the person contacting them?
  • Is the adult having contact with a child with children in their workplace?
  • Is the adult involved in voluntary work, youth work and other activity where they have trust?
  • What is the timescale for a forensic investigation of any computer equipment?
  • If the person is to be investigated, how should their contact with children be managed in the meantime?
  • Should other procedures, such as Managing Allegations of Abuse by Staff be triggered?
  • Is the parent or any other carer able to protect the child? What support networks do they have?
  • What are the implications of the likely delay in criminal investigations?

Where the enquiries have revealed that there are children about whom there are concerns of continuing risk of significant harm, and Initial Child Protection Conference will be convened within 15 working days.

Where there are no children identified as at risk of continuing significant harm in relation to the adult, the police will continue with the investigations to establish the identity of the child/ren in the images.