There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children – Nelson Mandela.
As a detective Steve Fontana has done the hard yards and with 40 years at the sharp end felt there was little left that could leave him shocked.
He was wrong.
As Assistant Commissioner (Crime) he had assigned a group of his detectives to identify Internet child porn offenders. Years earlier he investigated sex offenders and wanted to see how computer networks had changed the landscape.
And so late last year he was shown an example of the type of material that is now produced for a growing and frightening international MARKET.
Labrador Hawk works with the Calgary Police Service as a Canine Assisted Intervention Trauma Dog.
Labrador Hawk works with the Calgary Police Service as a Canine Assisted Intervention Trauma Dog. Photo: Calgary Police Service
First the office was cleared so no one else would accidentally be subjected to this horror that defies understanding.
The screen showed an infant tortured on an online site. And while the images were distressing it was the sound that still haunts the senior cop.
It was of that helpless toddler, just old enough to walk, screaming with pain and fear while being deliberately injured.
He thought the child, later found to have have been filmed in Asia, was doomed to die but eventually the girl was identified and rescued, although no one can possibly guess the long term psychological toll.
“It is pure evil,” says Fontana, still outraged by what he watched.
A joint Victoria/Australian Federal Police taskforce has been working to identity offenders, but more importantly victims, who need to be saved.
Fontana says police in just one case have so far rescued 14 children in Australia and overseas used as fodder by that one international syndicate. But there are more.
“We have rescued two in Victoria,” he says.
Police use high tech tricks to find offenders but sometimes it is old-fashioned policing that gets the results.
“In one case it was just a footslog getting out there and asking people if they recognised a particular child until we found the house.”
So how does it work? There are thousands of offenders in Australia who through Peer to Peer networks and the Dark Web source images of sexually exploited kids.
The offenders who download this material sometimes try to justify their actions by claiming to police the images already exist and they are just looking but Fontana says they are feeding a MARKET of depravity. “You access this and you are exploiting kids.”
There are pay for view sites where the “consumer” can request their fantasies be acted out with children.
The offending is so vile that police assigned to investigate are offered counselling and rotated regularly so they don’t end up emotionally crippled. “We are seeing stuff that has gone to a whole new level of evil,” says Fontana.
And he would know. He was a senior investigator in the Spectrum Taskforce, the group that hunted the child sex offender Mr Cruel.
The man believed to have abducted and murdered Templestowe 13-year-old Karmein Chan in 1991 was not found but Spectrum identified 150 men who subscribed to a mail order child pornography network.
“It was big business. We found offenders who were pillars of society.”
Back then they had to source the material – usually videos available through post office boxes – but now it is international and accessible to anyone with a computer.
While the internet has made it easier, those who exploit children have always been with us. The difference is the police response. Just over 10 years ago a Law Reform Commission report found police investigations were undermined by a general attitude of disbelief.
Most child victims were not in a position to complain and those who did were often ignored.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has heard story after story of how children – state wards, orphans, kids from dysfunctional families and those who fell through the cracks – were subjected to systemic abuse.
Kids who were beaten and raped would sometimes abscond and the organisation legally obligated to protect them – the police – often were unwittingly complicit in the abuse.
Too often, Fontana says, the runaways were taken back to the institution or the family home without being asked why they ran away in the first place.
The commission heard from a witness who said when he told police he would stop running “if they stopped raping me” one officer responded by hitting him on the head with a telephone for being cheeky. He was sent back to the very home where he was abused.
“Many had horrible lives with no-one there to protect them,” says Fontana. But he doesn’t want carers to be branded as molesters. “Most are truly dedicated carers who do amazing jobs with some difficult kids.”
Many angry boys became angry adults with some of Australia’s most violent criminals graduating from the worst institutions.
The last man legally flogged in Australia was William John O’Meally who shot dead Constable George Howell in 1952. He was sentenced to 12 lashes in 1957 for escape.
Despite the flogging and serving 27 years in Pentridge it was his treatment at the Gosford Boys Home that left him traumatised.
“My nights are nightmares. I sweat and feel sick as each moment I am there again to relive it all again, especially the bag rooms where I had to fight for my life and finished up losing my manhood,” he wrote shortly before his death in 1995.
The Tamworth Boys’ Home, based on a philosophy of violence and intimidation, is linked to at least 35 violent deaths involving “graduates” of that hellhole.
LEONIE SHEEDY is one of seven siblings who spent years in homes when taken from their neglectful parents.
Sheedy, now executive officer for Care Leavers Australia Network, a group representing those who grew up in orphanages, children’s homes and foster care, says, “we are Australia’s throwaway children”.
Her brother, Anthony, died at 69 without ever having a birthday celebration. They planned a party for his 70th but he died four months short. Intellectually disabled he was regularly raped as a ward of the state.
She says 500,000 children spent time in out of home care with an unknown number abused.
Part counsellor and part detective she tries to put the pieces together in individual cases but often the records are incomplete or destroyed. In one case a man who spent six years in a home has found there is nothing in the files to show he existed.
Sometimes Sheedy goes to libraries to read old copies of the Police Gazette – “they are a wealth of information”.
“In one weekend in the 1960s 18 kids absconded from orphanages and no-one bothered to ask why.”
Fontana agrees, saying police have to drill down to find why kids run. “We have young people who have gone missing up to 40 times and we can’t just pick them up and take them back.”
For police the line becomes blurred when the victims are also offenders. Kids who have been abused are likely to be on the streets and in trouble.
Some have been mistreated so long they no longer understand they are victims because the normal views on right and wrong have been taken from them.
They can be violent, drug affected and seemingly hopeless cases and little wonder some police just want to process them and move on.
And in that world cops are often viewed as the enemy so why would you confide in one?
It is a grim world but not one without hope, and the justice system has moved a long way in the past 10 years in dealing with child sex victims.
Police now have 27 Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Teams staffed by detectives trained to win the confidence of victims.
There are multidisciplinary centres that house police, child protection and sexual assault counsellors with some having forensic medicine facilities on-site.
Laws have been tightened with mandatory reporting, failure to disclose suspicions of sex offences against children, failure to protect and the introduction of the offence of grooming.
Victims can now give recorded video evidence to avoid the trauma of having to repeat their statements at different hearings.
One of the greatest problems for authority figures is to gain the trust of children who have been let down by the adults who should have protected them.
In Canada they are having promising results using trauma dogs that bond with damaged kids.
In one case a frightened little girl was calmed by patting the dog next to her while giving evidence.
The handler of black Labrador retriever trauma dog Hawk, Sergeant Brent Hutt, told CBC, “I’ve seen him walk into a room, bypass people that he knows … and go to the victim and curl up with [them]. It blows people away.”
“Often we’ll ask a question, or a police officer will ask a question, and the person will answer to Hawk.”
And that is the real truth – these victims need to be cared for and protected and not to be judged.