An NSPCC research report has found that out of 100 cases of convictions relating to child abuse images between 2008 and 2010, 24 people were in a ‘position of trust’ at the time of their arrest and out of these seven were employed by schools, some of them being teachers. This is a very small sample considering more than 10 times that number of people (1,402) were proceeded against or found guilty in cases involving indecent images of children in 2007. It’s likely there are many more who have not been caught.

The defence often used by people arrested for such offences is that they were not actually sexually abusing a child and were only looking at pictures out of curiosity. However, the report discusses the number of images held by individuals and the nature of the images.

The number of images relating to individual cases ranged from eight videos (lowest) to 445,217 pictures and videos (highest).

There were 2,258,980 images in total across all 100 convictions. Of these, 48,500 images were reported to be in the most serious categories: Level 4 (penetrative sexual activity involving a child or children, or both children and adults) or Level 5 (sadism or penetration of or by an animal).

A very worrying aspect of these cases is that the 24 people employed in a position of trust all come from professional groups where safer recruitment practice should be in place or where at the very least there is a requirement for a clear CRB check. This suggests that the offences occurred after employment in a position of trust had started (otherwise the whole CRB procedure would need to be examined to see why such serious offences had not shown up).

Ten per cent of those convicted had been hoarding child abuse images for five years or more before they were caught, showing that for many of these offenders their behaviour has gone on for a considerable length of time. The fact that a person in a position of trust has collected and kept such images over such periods of time destroys the idea of a person merely having a look out of curiosity. In a number of these cases the defendant reported having sexual fantasies about abusing children and five confessed attempting to make contact with children over the internet. In one case the defendant went on to sexually abuse a child.

This report is important in understanding the wide range of people who are prepared to abuse children by buying into an industry based on the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of babies, children and young people. It demonstrates a possible progression from seeking out and looking at images, using those images for sexual gratification, fantasising about abusing a child and actually abusing a child.

The report gives us further reason and motivation to carry on being vigilant long after we have implemented safer recruitment practice and procedures.

Most of the heads who have attended the safer recruitment workshops have told me that the training had caused them to change the way they advertise, shortlist, interview and appoint. However, developing an ethos that supports reporting concerns about the behaviour of colleagues is much harder to establish.

Hard to make the link
From my own experience of helping schools manage such cases, it often seems hard for people who have not witnessed such pictures to make a direct link between the image and the actual abuse of a child. But seeing an actual child in an image causes a reaction that is fundamentally different from being told about an image. I have had occasion to seek support for IT staff who have found abuse images on school laptops and have had to report what they have seen to headteachers, starting off investigations. The impact on staff is devastating and they may experience feelings of unwarranted guilt for having seen such images even though they have done the right thing.

The allegation that a member of school staff has abusive images in their possession impacts on the whole staff team, causing secondary victimisation that requires the offer of counselling for some. Staff can feel guilty for having associated with or for having put trust in a person who has been found to possess such material.

Having robust recruitment procedures is then only one aspect of prevention and schools need to remain vigilant to behaviour that indicates a person is a risk to children. Codes of conduct need to incorporate clear guidance and warnings about the misuse of technology and clear guidance on how a member of staff should report concerns about the behaviour of colleagues.

In many cases of this kind it is the police that have started the investigation. However, where it is a member of staff who has reported concerns it is essential to recognise the likely impact on that person and to ensure that support systems are in place to help them and the team cope with the aftermath.

NSPCC report ’What Do We Know about People Convicted of Offences Relating to Child Abuse Images?’