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Abuse: Combating sexualized violence against children

slightly blurred view of two prams, each being pushed by a running man, a small child is sitting in the front pram

The perpetrators are babysitters, fathers, or acquaintances: In Germany, at least 49 children suffer sexualized violence every day, the number of unreported cases is unknown. The brutality shocked experienced investigators. what must happen

Not an isolated case: Abusers have surreptitiously gained the trust of parents as babysitters and tormented children

The full extent is not yet known, but this is true: the youngest of at least 12 children was only a month old and a 44-year-old man from Wermelskirchen near Cologne tormented them for years as a babysitter with sexualized violence. The police were able to take him by surprise and arrest him. With more than 70 other suspects throughout Germany, he exchanged photos and videos of acts of abuse against babies, small children, and children with disabilities on the Internet.

“I couldn’t have imagined something like that,” said Cologne police chief Falk Schnabel. “I have never encountered such a level of inhuman brutality and callous indifference to the suffering of young children, their pain and their screams and their obvious fear.”

The investigations into other possible suspects and affected children are still ongoing months after the arrest, senior public prosecutor Markus Hartmann told DW. With the secured amount of data of more than 30 terabytes, the investigators were “confronted with new findings almost every day”.

Abuse Officers: Proving Violence, Freeing Children

Wermelskirchen is the latest case in a series of large abuse complexes with many perpetrators and victims that were uncovered in the most populous federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). Is this a new dimension of violence against children?

Kerstin Claus, Independent Commissioner for Child Sexual Abuse (UBSKM), the federal government’s abuse commissioner, told DW: “Wermelskirchen stands for the fact that the spread of digital media is revealing acts of violence of the most monstrous kind that existed before.”

Portrait of a woman with short blond hair in a green jacket, looking forward at an angle and smiling
Kerstin Claus has been the Independent Commissioner for Child Sexual Abuse (UBSKM) since April

Violence against the youngest children existed before the Darknet forums. The difference: “Today we can prove the violence.” New photos and films of acts of abuse on the Internet must be recognized quickly in order to locate and free the children.

ZAC NRW: Task force against sexual violence online

Finding children and perpetrators as quickly as possible is the task of a specialized task force at ZAC NRW in Cologne, the central and contact point for cybercrime in North Rhine-Westphalia, which is headed by senior public prosecutor Markus Hartmann. He points to many investigative successes. Since July 2020, more than 9,300 investigations have been initiated against almost 9,900 suspects.

A woman with blond hair sits with her back to the viewer in front of two monitors: on the left you can see the inscription telephone, on the right many small pixelated images, presumably depicting abuse
When fighting sexualised violence, the police and public prosecutors rely on receiving tips from providers and the general public

Most of the information about sexualized violence online comes from the US NCMEC (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children). In an exchange with the State Criminal Police Office and local public prosecutors, the task force clarifies which criminal prosecution measures are to be carried out immediately. If there are indications of ongoing abuse, you act “within a few hours,” says Hartmann.

Investigations against abusers must not fail

The cases of child sexual abuse discovered in police statistics have been increasing for years. BKA President Holger Münch speaks of 49 a day.

However, children did not only experience the abuse on one day, to which they are statistically assigned, emphasizes the abuse officer. They are “often at the mercy of their tormentors for months and years”, often in their own families or in the immediate environment.

How big is the dark figure? Certainly many times greater than in the statistics, says Kerstin Claus. The fact that this question cannot yet be answered “is a scandal”.

In a statement on police statistics, the Council for Affected Persons writes that sexualized violence remains “unfortunately still one of the safest crimes for perpetrators”. Two-thirds of the investigations would be discontinued. That has to change.

Senior Public Prosecutor Markus Hartmann sees this problem primarily in the case of crimes without an internet connection, where the word of the victim stands against the word of the perpetrator. In the fight against Internet-related child abuse, there is often ” very clear evidence ” that is usually enough for an indictment. The arrested person from Wermelskirchen, for example, documented the crimes in detailed lists.

The prerequisite, however, is that the perpetrators can be identified quickly. Investigators often get clues with a delay, says Hartmann. Some can no longer be tracked because the IP address assigned by providers is deleted after just one week, “an obstacle to successful investigations”. Interior Minister Nancy Faeser has announced that she will support an extension of the storage of IP addresses.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and more staff

More than 30 terabytes of data were secured in Wermelskirchen. One terabyte, said one of the investigators, corresponds to a stack of paper 25 kilometers high. For years, the number of recognized misuse images in such collections – legally called child pornography – has been increasing.

ZAC NRW uses artificial intelligence (AI) to support the investigators. More than 90 percent of child pornographic images are recognized correctly, says Hartmann. Investigators could automatically gain a quick overview of large amounts of data: “Is there another child who is currently being abused?”

In the end, however, people would have to judge pictures and videos as well as the suspicion that there would be no “robo-judge”, says senior public prosecutor Hartmann. Like abuse officer Kerstin Claus, he advocates more staff and technical equipment in the investigative authorities in order to fight child abuse more effectively.

Portrait of a man with brown hair and glasses in a dark jacket looking at the camera with a slight smile
Chief public prosecutor Markus Hartmann heads the center and contact point for cybercrime in North Rhine-Westphalia – ZAC NRW

More networking against abusers in Europe

Kerstin Claus says that Europe is considered a hub for the spread of depictions of abuse. She welcomes the European Commission’s plans for an EU center that is intended to complement and strengthen the national law enforcement authorities – and support those affected in their right to have depictions of abuse deleted.

Markus Hartmann would also like more international cooperation and legal aid. The perpetrators’ online forums are not just in German, French, or Italian, but international. There are already very good results with equally well-specialized partner authorities, for example in the Baltic States: “Then cooperation across European borders is faster than across federal state borders.”

Changing awareness: everyone knows those affected and the perpetrators

In the past, those affected by sexual abuse were not believed, says Kerstin Claus. Today the deeds have become more visible, but many still do not want to admit that it affects children in their own environment.

“Social consciousness must change fundamentally,” says Claus. “We all know those affected, so we also know the perpetrators.” It is assumed that in every school class one or two children are victims of abuse.

Top view of a man and child sitting on the floor bending over a jigsaw puzzle together
Most people cannot or do not want to imagine child abuse happening in their immediate environment

“We need to be aware that sexualized violence – the earlier, the worse, and the longer the consequences – is the ultimate catastrophe for child development,” psychoanalyst Matthias Franz told DW.

Affected people need therapy, often over many years. There is not enough help and support, the abuse officer notes, “because the resources are not made available or donations have to be laboriously begged for in some federal states”. She warns: “The trauma doesn’t stop just because the actions stop.”

Much more research – also about perpetrators

How can you do that to little kids? The perpetrators are usually considered inconspicuous. Psychoanalyst Franz speaks of people with empathy disorders who have power over the weaker, who torment small children through sexualized violence: “It gives some people great pleasure and an intoxicating feeling of omnipotence to leave all ethical boundaries behind.”

The de-limitation of the Internet acts as a fire accelerator: perpetrators mutually reinforce the legitimacy of their actions. Empathy for others usually develops by the age of six: “Many perpetrators didn’t experience any empathy as children. We urgently need more research: What’s wrong with these people? How did they become like this? Can it be treated?”

Prevention: Protecting Children Online

Markus Hartmann says that sexualized violence against children cannot be dealt with by prosecution alone. ZAC NRW carries out days of action to show potential perpetrators that there is a real risk of discovery. Investigators have created training and educational materials to combat grooming – contact with children to encourage abuse.

View of a classroom, in the background the teacher stands in front of the blackboard and raises one arm, in front of her are children who look at her and also raise their arms
It is estimated that one or two children per school class are affected by sexual abuse

In addition to educating children, teachers, and parents, Kerstin Claus calls for binding protection rules for the digital space in which children move largely alone: ​​protective default settings, low-threshold offers of help, age restrictions, or controlling moderation.

In order to better fathom the dark field, one needs regular surveys of young people about experiences of abuse, combined with the development of protection concepts.

A campaign to educate and raise awareness is to start in the autumn. Everyone should know exactly – as with the fire alarm – where to find help in protecting children from abuse: “I don’t look if I don’t know what I can do about it.”

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