OTTAWA — Victims of childhood sexual abuse often suffer great distress over the fact video or pictures of the crimes are circulating in cyberspace — adding to the pain they are already experiencing, says a new report.
The existence of images that may still be possessed by the abuser or publicly available for others to see has “an enormously negative impact” on victims, says the report by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, a national charity that fights child exploitation.
“The impact can persist into adulthood and may significantly reduce the ability of survivors to cope with day-to-day stressors, maintain healthy relationships, and reach their full potential.”
The report draws on the experiences of 150 child sex-abuse victims from Canada, the United States and several European countries who filled out an extensive survey to help researchers better understand what they’re facing as adults.
Almost 70 per cent of those who took part worried about being recognized by someone because of the recording of their child sexual abuse. One in every five reported being identified by a person who had seen their abuse imagery.
“It’s not something that will ever go away. Being the adult I am now, my photos are still out there, as long as the internet exists my photos will always be out there,” one respondent told the researchers.
“Sites will be taken down but new ones are somehow being put back up…. There is no way I can finally be done with this abuse.”
The report recommends considering global adoption of a centre-developed tool known as Project Arachnid, an automatic web crawler that detects images and videos based on digital fingerprints of illegal content. The tool has already identified tens of thousands of online images of child sexual abuse.
When such material is identified, a notice is sent to the hosting internet provider to request immediate removal.
“We need other countries to be aware of it, that this is available,” said Lianna McDonald, the child protection centre’s executive director.
The researchers found almost half of the respondents were victims of organized sexual abuse, assaulted by multiple offenders. In such scenarios, the main offenders were often parents or extended family members.
Many victims did not tell anyone about the abuse until they were an adult. Very few first told someone at school, a place where children spend much of their time. Many said no one ever asked them directly if they had been abused.
As a result, the report recommends improving education and training on child sexual abuse among professionals, such as teachers and doctors, to help them recognize signs and respond appropriately.
The centre’s report also recommends:
— Strengthening co-ordination and communication between organizations that deal with victims of child abuse and online exploitation, including schools, child welfare, hotlines, therapists, police, industry, child-serving organizations and advocacy centres;
— Developing comprehensive remedies to recognize the rights and needs of victims whose abuse was recorded, such as knowledgeable therapists, means of financial compensation and opportunities to have their voices heard within the criminal justice system.
Sheldon Kennedy, a former NHL player who was sexually abused by his junior hockey coach, helped facilitate the opening of the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre in Calgary. It brings together under one roof the services of police, social workers, medical staff, psychologists and prosecutors to try to avoid young victims constantly having to retell and relive their abuse.
One of the biggest gaps in helping victims of child abuse is a lack of training in professionals who dealing with victims, Kennedy said in an interview. He agrees the effects of abuse can be far-reaching.
“The kids that are being arrested, the kids that are in treatment centres, dropping out of school, committing suicide — there is a high, high percentage of them that you can bring back to some sort of adverse childhood experience — whether it’s growing up in violent homes, homes full of addictions, sexual abuse,” Kennedy said.
Efforts should be made to scrub images from the internet but it may not be entirely possible, he added.
“A lot of times these images are printed and shared and saved offline or on the ‘dark web.’ But the effort should be made.
“It’s all about doing what you can to eliminate some of them or all of them if possible.”