Child sexual abuse happens more than we like to think. The Internet Watch Foundation screened over a 100,000 web addresses hosting illegal child sex images and found that almost half were hosted in The Netherlands. Why The Netherlands? Perhaps because we don’t use enough filters like organisations such as Google and Facebook do that delete illegal content. These 47,000 web pages hosted in The Netherlands alone is what is left after screening.

The response has been mostly to erase the pictures, which helps to curb the spread. But there is something missing, because what happens to the children and what happens to the perpetrators? Are they found, are they even looked for? Well, not really.

It is common knowledge now that the police is simply overwhelmed by the amount of known child sexual abuse. The children are not ‘given the service’ they require. I for one do not blame the police nor do I think that it is wise to invest money in the police capacity to have them search and rescue all abused children. It would bleed budgets dry and we need to question if this approach – while overtly just in nature – is the best way.

I’d like to look at the problem differently. Classic (and much tested) criminology states that crime happens through 3 factors: there’s a motivated perpetrator, there’s a suitable victim and there’s a lack of social control. In my experience as a researcher on the worst forms of child exploitation such as child sexual abuse, perpetrators will always exist, either to make money or for sexual gratification. Children cannot oversee the dangers of poaching pedophiles and if they do are not always strong enough to resist. There is only one factor that will keep child exploitation from happening and that is social control.

The process by which children are coaxed into sexual abuse is not only by immediate foce. Often, a child is groomed over a longer period of time. Grooming is a form of manipulation that both attracts the child and threatens her or him not to tell anyone about what is happening. In this way, a child is steered away from caretakers. At the same time, it is more ‘normal’ for the child to be in the company of an adult. And that is when abuse takes place.

Images of sexual abuse are that: they are photo’s of a child being sexually abused. So eliminating this images does not stop the abuse, or only partly.

How can we increase social control over children while letting them lead their lives? First of all, there is some general awareness that parents can develop, also with their children. Children spend a lot of time alone on the net on smartphones where they are poached on almost any social network. If you haven’t seen it, it’s more common than you’d think. But here’s the thing: these can be places of great risk for children and we need to control these social networks.

So, secondly, adult citizens must excercise coordinated control on these sites to seek out and identify child poachers. In the United States and the UK, the practice is known and to some extent controversial. Why controversial? Because personal information of some of the perpetrators and their families has been shared on the internet, causing great uproar. Publicizing their personal information is a breach of their rights and a punishment. And think of those who abuse children as you like, their punishment should be left to a court of law.

What I fail to understand is why no credible initiative exists that guides the investigative efforts of citizens within the bounds of law. The powers of citizens to collect information on others if they clearly administer their suspicions and collect only information that is relevant to confirm or disprove them is quite ample. Observing, even with a handheld camera or hidden microphone, is legal, for example. As is checking out social media profiles and posing as a minor to see if the person takes a bait. If the person posing does not take initiative to propose illegal activity (actually, in the US this is less a problem) then a meeting between the perpetrator and the assumed victim constitutes a flagrant crime for which a person can be arrested either by a citizen to hand over to police or by police themselves.

The benefits of doing this within the bounds of law are enormous. The internet becomes less of a safe haven to initiate child sexual abuse. However minimal, some control of these sites is simply necessary.

The cost of doing this is really minimal, especially when compared to investing in investigation officers.

The risk to citizens is not that perpetrators are aggressive. From my experience, they are less aggressive than drug-addicts that have stolen or robbed something. The risk of psychological strain due to being confronted with people that do things we generally consider to be heinous is more serious. For this reason, this kind of activity is not for everyone. I am myself hesitant and never act alone, also to protect my sanity.

We do not need to be a hero to make a difference and to save victims from crimes.

We are setting up a local society of citizens acting against injustice. It tells this story to police, municipalities and ministries and helps to set the agenda for policy initiatives and operational collaboration. It also trains citizens in their rights and the limits of these rights to collect information. Finally, it measures the impact of citizens activities, in coordination with authorities and administrations or apart. It will take a great demonstration of professionalism and effectiveness to change the attitude against citizens assisting in preventing crimes to children.

Thank you Dutchbuzz for interviewing me on this relevant topic (go to 1:30)!