Tags: Child protection | Child Protection & Safeguarding | Child Protection Coordinator | Legislation

In Spring 2007, Jenni Whitehead reported on a Home Office consultation, which was launched to seek views on proposals for making non-photographic visual depictions of child abuse an offence

A Home Office consultation seeks views on proposals for making non-photographic visual depictions of child abuse an offence.

What is a non-photographic depiction of child sexual abuse?

Non-photographic images includes cartoon drawings whether or not they are animated or computer generated images. The content of these images includes sexual behaviour between children and adults including non-penetrative sexual activity, penetrative sexual activity involving a child or children, or between children and adults, sadism or bestiality involving a child. These images are not real images of children but could be images of real children.

Why be concerned about drawings?

A number of child welfare organisations and the police report a growing increase in the production of such images and websites advertising this sort of explicit material. The question is whether or not such material serves to fuel the sexual abuse/ exploitation of children and whether or not it is being used during the process of grooming children for abuse. The consultation paper recognises that one of the problems is the paucity of research in this area, it is not known whether sexual abusers are using non-photographic images as a substitute for photographs of real children as a way of getting round present legislation that doesn’t cover such depictions.

Human rights considerations?

The consultation makes it clear that the images of concern are pornographic and that there is no intention to criminalise the possession of them where there is a justifiable reason for having them. Similarly, there is no intention to criminalise those who accidentally stumble across this material or who have the material sent to them without their knowledge or consent.

The proposal to create a new offence outlined in this paper will have some impact on an individual’s freedom to create or possess certain images. However, the content of the images targeted in this consultation covers depictions of child sexual abuse only. Additionally, the images must be pornographic.

The paper stresses that it is not the intention to criminalise the possession of works of art and historical artefacts in any respect to hamper or limit police investigations or medical research. For example:

  • the legitimate visual recreations of offences for investigative or risk evaluation purposes 
  • the medical care and treatment of children n the collection of medical forensic evidence 
  • the treatment of adult abusers.

The proposals for a defence of legitimate reason for possession of these images are intended to ensure that possession in the areas listed above are protected.

The paper states that obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights have been considered and the view is that the proposals are compatible with article 10 (freedom of expression) and article 8 (private life).

Present legislation

Present legislation does not cover the possession of this type of material. A pseudo-photograph is defined as an image, whether made by computer graphics or otherwise, which appears to be a photograph. So, under current law, if an indecent image of a child created by CGI, or for that matter a drawing or cartoon, looks realistic enough to appear to be a photograph, despite not actually depicting a real child or a real event, possession could still be covered by section 160 of the 1988 Act. However, this does not apply to drawings or cartoons.

A new offence would equip the criminal law to deal with these images and would address the concerns expressed by the police and children’s charities. Collectors of material of this kind almost always also have indecent photographs of children. Criminalising possession would allow the police to forfeit the images and thereby take them out of circulation.

Why is this consultation important to education?

The consultation is on whether or not the possession of such material should become an offence. At the present time, the making of and distribution of images that are so realistic that they could be said to depict real children can be dealt with under legislation. This proposal includes fantasy images (of actual sexual abuse) and there is a risk that innocent people, including young people themselves, could be caught up under this legislation. If schools discover pupils in possession of such images are they to be expected to inform the police?

If the police and other agencies know that these images are being used as a tool to aid the grooming of young people and a pupil is found in possession of such images, should schools see this as a potential child protection case?

In respect of pornographic images of real children the case is clear, the image is actually a visual reproduction of a sexual crime, evidence. The making of, possession and distribution of them serves to perpetuate the abuse of children. The case is not so clear in respect of fantasy.

In the process of management of allegations against members of staff, would the downloading of cartoons or drawings of the sexual abuse of children and young people become a more serious matter of concern, resulting in a child protection investigation or would it be seen as a management issue that schools can deal with by themselves?

The same question applies to colleges and some programmes of study may need to think very carefully at the material that their students explore. While one of the defences listed is the possession of artwork, when should student’s art work or the material they are exploring become a matter of concern?

Click here to view the consultation on the Home Office site.  

This article first appeared in Protecting Children Update – May 2007

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