Catching a predator.
That number — 21,000 potential instances of child exploitation — shows the sheer enormity of the task facing AFP’s investigators.
Each report is triaged, with the most urgent investigated first.
It’s nebulous, painstaking work.
“Once we uncover this pattern of behaviour, we often find that there is a trail of victims that we then have to identify and speak with and let them feel seen and safe,” Snr Cst. Whelan said.
Listen: Cybersafety expert Kirra Pendergast on how kids behave online. (Post continues below.)
She and her team at Eastern Command are currently generating “one or two” search warrants a week.
“That represents, realistically, two offenders every week that we’re interdicting and potentially charging with some of these offences,” she said. “That’s quite a high tempo.”
Those that end up in handcuffs come from all walks of life, all demographics.
“People who seek to exploit vulnerability, particularly in children, [are] not one type of person. We’ve arrested offenders who are under the age of 18, over the age of 18,” Snr Cst. Whelan said. “I know most people like to consider a pedophile to look like an elderly gentleman. But the truth is, that’s just not [always] the case.”
In the process of their investigations, she and her colleagues are confronted with one of the most sinister and sickening sides of humanity. They undergo regular psychological evaluations to ensure they’re coping in the face of the thousands of images, videos and messages they must pore over, day in, day out.
“These things that we’re watching are abhorrent. You do have strong reactions to it, no matter how long you’ve been doing it,” she said.
“I say to some of the newer members coming in, ‘You will never become desensitised to it. And if you do, you need to move on.’ Because the reality is you’re supposed to react, but you learn how to react in a way that is objective and is actually going to assist you in either identifying the victim or prosecuting this person.”
From July 1 last year to June 30 this year, the AFP laid 1214 charges against 161 people and removed 67 Australian children from harm.
That result is the reason Snr Cst. Whelan is willing to persist in such an overwhelming role.
But ordinary Australians have a role to play in that success, too.
How you can keep your children safe online.
Snr. Constable Whelan is stepmother to a teenager and, naturally, online safety is often discussed in their household.
This is her advice for other parents:
- Learn the apps your children are using: “Parents have a really great idea of what technology is out there; they just don’t really understand how it works. So get on and use those apps yourself.”
- Research and talk: “This always shocks me, but only 52 per cent of parents actually talk to their children about online safety. It’s such a big part of their world, yet we’re still seeing that parents don’t know how to speak to their kids about what they’re doing online.” (For resources and tips, visit the ThinkUKnow website.)
- Be approachable: “We’re seeing children and young people online who are in that age where they’re developing their sexuality and exploring themselves and their relationships. It’s a very vulnerable time… Leave your parent hat and that judgmental hat at home. If they’ve shared something online with who they thought was a peer but turned out not to be, that’s incredibly embarrassing scenario for them. You really have to be a safe space for them to come to about that.”
- Bolster your online security: “Lock down your privacy settings where you can. Facebook, Instagram and so forth give you the opportunity to not be contacted by people that you don’t know or don’t have mutual friends with.”
- Set clear expectations: “There’s the idea of a communications contract that I quite like, where you say to your kids, ‘This is how much time you’re going to get per day on your phone or your laptop. And it’s going to be used in an area, like the lounge room, where everyone can see what you’re doing.’ All these sorts of things can be age-appropriate and make it very clear to your kids: ‘This is my expectation for when you’re using technology.'”
- Know how to report: “If the worst-case scenario has happened and they’ve shared something or come into contact with somebody who is attempting to exploit them, record it in whatever way you can — videotape it, photograph it — and know how to report it, know your e-safety avenues like the online AFP portal or the local police.”
Featured image: Getty.