Paedophiles who pose low risk 'should be given helplines instead of jail time'

‘As a country, we have to turn around and look at alternatives [to prison time]’, says UK’s top child protection officer

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The Independent Online

Paedophiles should be given greater access to confidential helplines and not face criminal sanctions unless they pose a physical threat to children, a top officer has said, because the police lack the manpower to tackle the number of potential child sex abusers in the UK.

Forces across the country arrest a “staggering” number of people on suspicion of viewing indecent images, some 400 a month, and “the capacity doesn’t exist within the service” to address the problem, according to Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs Council’s lead for child protection and abuse investigations.

Britain must face up to the fact that a “comprehensive, multi-faceted” approach to preventing child abuse includes not only arresting offenders and teaching children about the risk, but also the use of confidential phone lines for people who want help coping with their sexual attraction to children, Mr Bailey said.

“The [police] service has almost got to the point where it simply can't do anything more. That means that we have to start a really difficult conversation about how we stop this happening,” said Mr Bailey, who is the chief constable of Norfolk Police.

“The service’s response to this has been really robust. They've simply reached the point whereby we have, as a country, to turn around and say, ‘We have to look at alternatives’.

“It’s got to be broader than just a policy that says we're going to arrest our way out of this. What I’m suggesting is a multi-faceted response to the threat. We’ve got to try to do everything and stop children being abused.”

Mr Bailey said the number of men currently being arrested by police showed that officers were being effective.

But he added: “With that effectiveness comes some real challenges. There is a capacity issue.”

Mr Bailey is a keen supporter of helplines, such as the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, which is working with paedophiles and encouraging them to self-refer so they can discuss their problem before they commit any abuse.

“People accessing indecent images or with an interest in doing so should stop and contact the Lucy Faithfull Stop it Now helpline”.

The NSPCC estimates there could be up to half a million men in the UK who have viewed abuse images, basing its claim on the findings of a German population study. The figure is significantly higher than previous estimates.

The Lucy Faithfull Foundation helpline offers guidance to offenders and people worried they may be at risk of committing crimes. While the service is confidential, users are warned that if they talk about a child at risk, or a crime they have committed that information will be passed on to the police.

Donald Findlater, the director of Stop It Now, which runs the foundation, said: “Sexual abuse is an outrageous thing to happen, and therefore it's right that we be outraged and right that we do things that address it.

“The problem is how you separate outrage from vengefulness. Of course some people are outrageously dangerous and protecting the public means having to do kind of very harsh, punitive things to them.

“But we then translate that understanding to the rest of the population. We don't have a nuanced approach. The police and sentencing clearly have some variety in their responses but mostly we have a binary public view about this.”

Mr Findlater said it was important to take action to prevent abuse from happening in the first place. “People have called [us] for a reason, they’ve called for help,” he said.

Stop It Now also provides guidance for the partners of people who are attracted to children, as well as parents who are concerned about their child’s sexual behaviour.

Some 60 per cent of child sexual abuse of children happens within the “family constellation”, Mr Findlater added. “And we know that the vast, vast majority of that gets nowhere close to statutory agencies,” he said.

Stop It Now call handler Jennifer Michell said the service was trying to help people to change.

“We give them a place to talk about things that are considered taboo and if they didn't have this place then – and this place would be a place to address problematic behaviour – then where would they go?” she said.

“I think that the more opportunity they have to explore really difficult thoughts, that difficult subject, the better. It can only be a step in the right direction. The fact that the helpline has grown I think says that.”

More than 12,000 people accessed self-help resources on the Stop It Now website last year, and another 1,615 phoned its helpline with concerns about their online behaviour.

Juliet Grayson, a psychotherapist from the StopSO charity which links callers with therapists, said she helps offenders to start “learning what their triggers are and having alternative ways to make themselves feel better”, as well as identifying “cognitive distortions” that have allowed them to justify their actions to themselves.

She said: “Almost all sex offenders have an underlying trauma in their history. Often it's something that has happened to them in childhood. When they're feeling lonely that can be a vulnerable time.”

About 38 per cent of those who have called StopSO for help, equating to 162 people, have not come to the attention of the police, she said. She added: “In some cases we’re stopping it before the first crime.”

Urging understanding, she said: “Just imagine what life is like. You’re never going to be able to satisfy your sexual appetite. All you can legally do is masturbate to your own images in your head. It’s quite something.”

In a recent report the NSPCC said: “It is very important to note that the proportion of adults who report having a sexual interest in children does not equate to the number of adults who offend, as not all people act on their sexual interests and sexual urges.”

Mr Bailey said the police are investing more resources to tackle the threat of child sex abuse, including the creation of dedicated undercover officers to target those who pose the greatest risk.

“We agree with the NSPCC that the police alone cannot stop the demand for child abuse images and more needs to be done to prevent abuse in the first place.”

He also believes internet service providers have a “moral and social responsibility” to help police fight the problem of child abuse imagery.

Another senior police officer, Chief Superintendent Gavin Thomas, has also spoken of the need for a “rethink” on current approaches to sexual offending.

The president of the Police Superintendents’ Association of England and Wales said last year that managing the sex offenders register, which holds nearly 45,000 names, was a “major concern” and that there was not enough space to imprison all child sex offenders.

He added: “Should we be going down the criminal justice route or, based on a proper assessment, should we be going down the health route? At the moment I am not seeing alternative thinking on how we deal with this issue as it grows and grows and grows.”

Judges already have the option to impose rehabilitation programmes when they pass sentence in some cases relating to indecent images of children.

An NSPCC spokesman said: “Prevention of child abuse is of the utmost importance. The Lucy Faithfull Foundation provides essential interventions with offenders and potential offenders to seek to change their behaviours.

“The NSPCC welcomes further focus on this aspect of prevention although it is just one of many tactics we must pursue to protect children.

“The Government must implement a tough action plan to cut off the supply of these images, and to deter people from viewing them in the first place. And every child must have the right and ability to remove self-generated sexualised images from the internet.”