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On the front line of Australia’s fight against ‘tsunami’ of child abuse

Experts say Australia is fighting a ‘tsunami’ of child abuse but  Constable Tom Clayworth is part of one team having success hunting the online predators.

September 24, 2022
By Cassandra Morgan
24 September 2022

In his day-to-day work, Constable Tom Clayworth deals with some of humanity’s worst – the sickest of predators who prey on society’s most vulnerable children.

Despite common misconceptions, he warns that for most “you wouldn’t look twice at them on the street”. 

Some predators are charmers, others are “seemingly normal”, and they vary from young to old.

They’re also clued-in enough to target kids where they might least suspect it. 

“There’s a bit of a stereotype that a lot of child sex offenders are some creepy old guy that exists in some dark corner on the internet. It’s not the case,” Clayworth said. 

“We’ve had people that are university students … people that are unemployed, people that are employed in professional capacities. So there’s really no ‘type’.”

Clayworth, 29, has been an investigator with the Australian Federal Police’s Brisbane-based Anti Child Exploitation team for nearly three years. 

The AFP-led Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation was established in 2018 and has smashed records for online child exploitation reports each year since. Reports have more than doubled since its inception. 

In the past financial year, the centre fielded 36,600 online child abuse reports – up more than 60 per cent from the previous year’s 22,600 reports. 

“Perpetrators have really worked out how to use social media and other kinds of networking platforms to target children.”

Dr Gemma McKibbin, of the University of Melbourne

In 2021-22, the AFP arrested more than 230 people and laid more than 2030 child abuse-related charges. More than 110 children, including some in Australia and some overseas, were removed from harm because of those investigations. 

However, University of Melbourne research fellow Dr Gemma McKibbin, an expert leading the Disrupting Child Exploitation project, warns the reports are “just the tip of the iceberg”. 

“We’re facing a tsunami of child exploitation online,” she said. 

“Perpetrators have really worked out how to use social media and other kinds of networking platforms to target children.”

The centre has linked the spike in reports to better detection and greater community awareness, however, Clayworth reflects Dr McKibbin’s concern that predators are tailoring their offending to target children based on “what’s in fashion”.

This includes online games like Minecraft and Fortnite to social media platforms like Facebook and TikTok.

Predators aren’t hiding on “obscure, dodgy websites” or in closed communities, Clayworth warns.

“(As) more and more young people are coming online (and) devices and technology (are) developing … offenders will just exploit that – it’s what they do.”

He’s also seen more self-produced child abuse material being distributed by offenders. 

Children can be manipulated or extorted into producing the content and Dr McKibbin says threats of brutal violence, along with deep embarrassment and shame, can stop children from coming forward about their abuse.

“They’re mortified that they’re made to do these often highly degrading sexual acts on video,” she said.  

Clayworth says predators attempted to use the Covid-19 pandemic “as a vehicle to access children”, but investigators continued hunting them down and prosecuting them just the same.

As for how he and his team handle the trauma of being constantly exposed to child abuse content that can only be described as “horrendous”, he sweats it out in the gym and knows he can talk things through with his fiancée. 

“There’s strategies and things that we employ to try and minimise your exposure, so for instance, not watching some of the videos with sound.” 

Constable Tom Clayworth

“The team here as well is a very strong, cohesive team … that’s a really big element in terms of how we deal with things (on a) day-to-day basis,” Clayworth said. 

“There’s strategies and things that we employ to try and minimise your exposure, so for instance, not watching some of the videos with sound.” 

Dr McKibbin believes social media companies have “dirty hands” when it comes to “facilitating” child sexual abuse and reform is needed to stop the spread of such material online.

Under online safety legislation passed last year, industry groups were required to put together codes to reduce the risk of illegal and harmful online content, including child sexual exploitation material.

The codes are open for public feedback and the eSafety Commissioner will review them later this year before they are ticked off for implementation.

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Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 (for people aged 5 to 25)

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