Public Safety Canada Symposium Series for Criminal Justice Professionals Combatting Online Child Sexual Exploitation
Hosted by Public Safety Canada, 2021
Online child sexual exploitation (OCSE) is one of the most serious public safety issues facing society today. This heinous crime continues to affect generations of children in Canada and abroad. The rise of the Internet as a primary means of communication worldwide has facilitated easy, borderless access to, and sharing of, large quantities of images and videos of children being sexually exploited.
Public Safety Canada (PS) leads The National Strategy for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation on the Internet (National Strategy)launched in 2004. As the lead for the Strategy, PS works in collaboration with Justice Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Canadian Centre for Child Protection (C3P).
The Strategy provides coordination and oversight of federal efforts to combat OCSE. It includes initiatives that: support law enforcement capacity to combat OCSE; enable the reporting of OCSE to proper authorities; support victims of OCSE by facilitating the removal of imagery and videos; facilitate research on OCSE to increase understanding of the scale and scope of the issue; increase public awareness and reduce stigma associated with reporting; and engage with digital industry stakeholders to find new ways of combating this crime.
As part of the National Strategy, in early 2021 Public Safety Canada supported a series of webinars focused on sharing knowledge and raising awareness of issues related to the prevention, intervention and prosecution of online child sexual exploitation. Many partners and stakeholders, with a wide range of expertise and representing numerous sectors (e.g. education, social work, government, law enforcement, criminal justice and others), participated in these webinars.
The overall purpose of these webinars was to enhance knowledge and information sharing; better understand stakeholder concerns and priority issues; and inform forward- looking policy and program development.
Webinar 1: Impact of COVID-19 and Related Public Health Measures on Online Child Sexual Exploitation - January 27, 2021
- The shift to the online world as a result of the public health measures to address the COVID-19 pandemic led to a significant increase in reports of suspected cases of online child sexual exploitation. The RCMP National Child Exploitation Crime Centre (NCECC) saw a 36% increase from March to May 2020 and Cybertip.ca saw an 88% increase in reporting in the first few months of the pandemic.
- There is evidence that Indigenous youth are increasingly being targeted online.
- “Cappers” are taking advantage of kids spending time online and are adapting their approach as the pandemic continues. In the online child sex offender community, a “capper” is an individual who tricks kids into committing a sexual act over live stream while screen capturing or recording a video. Some cappers will use the child’s images/videos to extort them for more sexual images or money.
- As the pandemic required strict stay-at-home orders, including the closure of schools and child and youth centres, reports to teachers and child and youth professionals decreased during the pandemic.
- 86% of surveyed child maltreatment professionals reported an increase in perceived stress for children and families.
- This first session opened with a presentation by Ms. Erin Schlosser, Intelligence Analyst Supervisor, from the RCMP National Child Exploitation Crime Centre (NCECC). Ms. Schlosser presented on OCSE trends amid the COVID-19 pandemic. She also provided an overview of the organizational structure, role, and mandate of the NCECC, and the priorities of the NCECC Investigation Unit. She provided an update on changes in offenders’ online behaviour at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting a 36% increase in reports of suspected cases of OCSE received at the NCECC from March to May 2020. Ms. Schlosser also underscored changes in behaviours and trends of transnational child sex offenders (TCSOs), and the implications for the important work this means for law enforcement professionals moving forward.
- Next, Detective S/Sgt. Brian McDermott from the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Child Sexual Exploitation Unit presented on OCSE exploitation in Indigenous Communities. S/Sgt. Brian McDermott highlighted an increase of self-exploitation occurring in Indigenous communities since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the difficulty for law enforcement professionals investigating cases in remote communities, where Internet Service Providers (ISPs) do not readily keep logs. The OPP recently started a pilot program and created an Indigenous Liaison position to focus on investigations within Indigenous communities, with the goal of combatting OCSE through education with children, elders, and working with community non-governmental organization (NGOs).
- The third presentation by Mr. Stephen Sauer, Director of Cybertip.ca at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection (C3P) focused on trends identified through Cybertip.ca, the national tip-line for reporting suspected cases of OCSE. Mr. Sauer introduced the important work, mission and mandate of C3P, including accepting reports to Cybertip.ca from the Canadian public regarding the sexual exploitation of children, and the work of Project Arachnid, the automated system that crawls the internet to detect child sexual abuse material and sends take-down notices to online service providers. Mr. Sauer highlighted a significant (88%) increase in reports to Cybertip.ca at the beginning of April 2020, compared to the previous 10 months before the pandemic began. Mr. Sauer also described the increased risk to children posed by the behaviours of “cappers”. Cappers are individuals who capture a screenshot or record a video after tricking children into performing sexual acts during live streaming sessions. Mr. Sauer concluded the presentation showcasing the important work C3P does with survivors and families, including collaborating with local and international government partners to combat OCSE.
- Finally, the fourth presentation by Dr. Heather L. Price, Professor of Psychology and Canada Research Chair of Culture and Communities: Children and the Law at Thompson Rivers University highlighted the challenges for child maltreatment investigators in the context of COVID-19. In comparison to earlier presentations, Dr. Price noted a decrease in reporting of child sexual abuse cases to child maltreatment investigators during the first months of the COVID-19 crisis. To explain this discrepancy, Dr. Price noted the importance of schools and child care centers, which were shuttered at the beginning of the pandemic, as safe spaces where professionals normally could detect changes in a child’s behavior. Dr. Price also discussed some of the challenges in continuing to offer support services during the pandemic.
- During the discussion at the end of the presentations, panelists outlined some key emerging trends and issues that professionals working to combat OCSE should keep on their radar. For instance, children are engaging in self-exploitation at a younger age (6-8 years old), and there is an increase in adults reporting images of themselves that were captured and shared when they were younger. Panelists also highlighted the increased use of tools by offenders to ensure their anonymity and help evade law enforcement locally and across international borders.
- In relation to victim services professionals, the critical need for mental health support for front-line workers was also highlighted during this webinar session, a topic that was also discussed during the second and fourth webinar session of this Series. Dr. Price also pointed out the need and importance of having well-trained and skilled investigators for interviewing children, whether in person or at a distance, such as when using digital video-conferencing technologies, at a time when spaces where children usually would visit were shuttered.
- Discussions also provided opportunity for C3P to elaborate that since April 2020 they had received on average 300 reports from families/victims related to online sexual exploitation or from the public pertaining to individuals sexually exploiting children online. This was nearly double the average of what was usually received prior to the pandemic. C3P also discussed the speed with which internet service providers were able to remove child sexual abuse images from their servers as a result of notices issued through Project Arachnid: 50% removed images within two days, and 10-15% took more than 30 days after receiving a takedown notice. The OPP Child Sexual Exploitation Unit highlighted that their partnership with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security is particularly beneficial in such cases when it can be difficult to remove images from ISPs located outside of Canada.
- The OPP Child Sexual Exploitation Unit also used the discussion time to highlight how they assist youth through the process of removing images of themselves and flagged that while law enforcement has the duty to follow up on reports they receive from children, they cannot force children to report or provide additional details if they are reluctant to do so.
Webinar 2: Multi-Disciplinary-Team Model within Child and Youth Advocacy Centres (in collaboration with Justice Canada) - February 3, 2021
- The Child and Youth Advocacy Centre (CYAC) model is regarded as a best practice in child abuse response.
- Between January – December 2019, Boost Child & Youth Advocacy Centre received 324 referrals; from January – December 2020, that number increased by 17% to 381 referrals.
- Since the launch of the Marie-Vincent SPHÈRES Program in 2018, which provides services to disadvantaged and vulnerable youth victims of sexual exploitation, 91 young victims of sexual exploitation were able to benefit from various services offered through the program.
- As technology continues to evolve, CYACs will continue to support victims and their families through the criminal justice system, and continue to be experts in their fields, together with law enforcement officers and criminal justice professionals, through professional training opportunities.
- This session opened with a presentation by Ms. Lara Rooney, Senior Policy Analyst with the Policy Centre for Victim Issues at Justice Canada, who provided an overview of child advocacy centres and their purpose. Ms. Rooney began by highlighting that one-third of Canadians have experienced some form of child abuse by the age of 15, and that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the risk of child abuse. Ms. Rooney described the critical importance of Child and Youth Advocacy Centres (CYACs) in the reporting and victim support process. As a model of service delivery supported by Justice Canada, CYACs bring together services from law enforcement, child protection investigators, medical and mental health professionals, victim services advocates/workers, and Crown prosecutors. CYACs provide an individualized, compassionate, and coordinated response for children and youth who have experienced abuse and their families.
- Next, Detective Amy Spence from the Calgary Police Service presented the work of Calgary and Area Child Advocacy Centre and highlighted Calgary’s collaborative approach to combatting child exploitation. Detective Spence’s presentation focused on the triage process for supporting victims and the unique needs of youth and families, as well as some of the future initiatives of the Centre, including a digital forensics and cybercrime position within the team, providing training on forensic interviewing skills, and training related to supporting victims of OCSE.
- The next presentation was co-delivered by Ms. Maria Zigouris, M.S.W., RSW, Clinical Manager, and Ms. Sierra Robins, M.S.W., Child & Youth Advocate, both from Boost Child & Youth Advocacy Centre. Established in 2010 and funded by the Ministry of the Attorney General’s Ontario Victim Services, Boost CYAC’s Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) program provides short-term funding and coordination of referrals for families impacted by OCSE, as well as coping services for victims through trauma-informed therapy. Ms. Zigouris presented on the ICE Counselling Program which included examples of ICE incidents and cases where children or youth were sexually assaulted via digital technology or subjected to voyeurism via hidden or visible web cameras.
- Ms. Sierra Robins, M.S.W. and Child & Youth Advocate at Boost CYAC, provided additional detail on how Boost CYAC is supporting victims of OCSE through their Child & Youth Advocacy Program and Child Victim Witness Support Program, and highlighted the various mental health services offered by the ICE Program. Ms. Robins concluded her presentation with an overview of court cases involving online child sexual abuse, discussed the court process, and presented how Boost CYAC supports children, youth, and parents in this process.
- Finally, Ms. Geneviève Boisvert-Pilon, M.A. Sexologist and Psychotherapist, and Ms. Jennifer Pelletier, M.A. Sexologist and Psychotherapist, both from Fondation Marie-Vincent, presented on the Marie-Vincent model which helps protect youths from sexual violence through intervention, training and prevention. The speakers described the Marie-Vincent SPHÈRES Program which provides services to disadvantaged and vulnerable youth victims of sexual exploitation; highlighted their role in training police forces in Quebec to use the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) protocol when interviewing child and youth victims. The NICHD protocol is a non-suggestive interview guide developed by Michael Lamb and his colleagues at the NICHD for investigative interviews when questioning children suspected of being sexually abused.
- They also presented on their efforts for preventing online sexual violence among youth with Peer-Based Prevention Approach workshops that aim to increase youth awareness and prevention of online sexual violence.
- The discussion at the end of the session provided additional insight on how professionals can further disseminate knowledge and expertise on OCSE to smaller CYACs. For example participants highlighted the importance of continued training through webinar forums such as these, and through information-sharing resources located on the Child Advocacy Centre (CAC) national website. The presenters also discussed the critical need for educators and parents/caregivers to be included in future discussions addressing this important issue.
- Discussions also touched on the need for long-term funding for organizations in order for them to offer ongoing support to victims. Children are becoming victims of OCSE at younger ages than before, which means they often need continued support over longer periods of time. In addition, panelists highlighted a gap in their ability for longer term support as CYAC support usually stops when the child reaches 18, which leaves many young adults without support.
Webinar 3: Provincial Models and Tools to Address Online CSE - February 10, 2021
- Provinces have different models in place to combat OCSE, with provincial strategies including various stakeholders such as integrated ICE units, dedicated crown prosecutors and/or child serving organizations.
- There has been continued increase in numbers of cases that need to be investigated and prosecuted across Canada.
- The RCMP’s National Child Exploitation Crime Centre (NCECC) received 61,174 reports of online child sexual exploitation in 2018 and 102,927 reports in 2019, a 68% increase.
- In just over four years, BC ICE has supported the seizure and categorization of over 70 million images in OCSE investigations with over 6 million categorized as child pornography.
- From 2006 to February 2021, Ontario’s Provincial ICE Units conducted 65,321 investigations; 25,838 charges were laid, 6,950 persons were charged, and 2,728 victims were identified.
- The webinar opened with a presentation by S/Sgt. Dawn Morris-Little – Acting Officer in Charge of the National Child Exploitation Crime Centre (NCECC), RCMP, who presented on Canada’s National Strategy for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation on the Internet. S/Sgt. Morris-Little provided an update on the NCECC’s mandate to identify child victims of OCSE; investigate and assist in prosecuting offenders; provide investigative support; and strengthen the capacity of domestic and international policing agencies in combatting local and transnational child sex offenders.
- The second presentation was co-presented by Mr. James Rowan, Crown Attorney, Province of Alberta and S/Sgt. Dominic Mayhew from the Alberta ICE unit. Mr. Rowan presented on Alberta’s model for prosecutions. The Specialized Prosecutions Branch in Alberta provides prosecution services in sensitive and complex areas such as economic crime, organized crime, environmental protection, occupational health and safety, technology and internet crime, and mutual international legal assistance. The province includes forty specialized Crown Prosecutors (Crowns) in five units, 23 in Edmonton and 17 in Calgary. The Technology and Internet Crime Unit, where 17 Crowns operate, focuses specifically on child pornography offences, whether or not an electronic device or the internet was used; luring; making arrangements; and contact offences. Crowns in this Unit are 100% dedicated to internet child exploitation prosecutions.
- S/Sgt. Dominic Mayhew presented on the Alberta Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) Unit. The Alberta ICE Unit was created in May, 2006 and partners with the Province of Alberta, Edmonton Police Service, Calgary Police Service, Medicine Hat Police Service, Lethbridge Police Service, and the RCMP. The ICE Unit comprises two teams: The Northern and Southern Alberta ICE Unit Teams. Both ICE units specialize in the investigation of accessing, possession, distribution, importation and manufacturing of child sexual abuse material; child luring through electronic means; voyeurism involving victims under the age of 18, through electronic means; as well as child sex trade and travelling sex offenders.
- Following these two presenters, Sgt. Robyn Waldron with the British Columbia Integrated Child Exploitation Unit, BC RCMP, presented on British Columbia’s Provincial Child Exploitation Strategy. The BC Integrated Child Exploitation Team was created in 2004, consisting of Investigative Analysts, two Operational Investigations teams, Online Covert Investigators and a Victim Identification Unit, providing support to the entire province of British Columbia. BC has encountered a 133% increase in the number of reported OCSE cases, growing from 1917 files in 2017 to 4467 files in 2020. BC ICE is also part of the BC Provincial Child Exploitation Strategy (BCPCES), which works with partners such as the Provincial Prosecution Service, in its function as a resource counsel group dedicated to online child exploitation offences, to improve how Crown prosecutors and ICE Investigations teams can work together to protect children and prosecute offenders.
- The final presentation in this third webinar session was co-presented by Ms. Lisa Henderson, Provincial Crown Coordinator for the Ontario Provincial Strategy to Combat Internet Crimes Against Children, and Detective S/Sgt. Brian McDermott from the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP). Both presented on Ontario’s Provincial ICE Strategy, which aims to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation on the internet and to combat crimes against children on the internet. Created in 2006, the Ontario ICE Strategy currently includes law enforcement officers from the OPP and municipal police services across the province, as well as 4 full-time Crown Attorneys and the Boost Victim Services counselling program. Since the launch of the Ontario ICE Strategy, 65,321 investigations were conducted; 25,838 charges were laid; and 2,728 victims were identified and rescued as part of these investigations.
- Discussions in this session allowed presenters to elaborate on some of the contributing factors responsible for the large caseloads for professionals working in this field. For example, despite improvements in reporting and monitoring of OCSE, it has become increasingly easy to find like-minded individuals on the internet to interact with and share techniques for accessing child sexual abuse material. Increases in storage capacity and the availability of high-speed internet were also noted in the discussion session as contributory factors facilitating the storage and distribution of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) of children. Presenters also noted a trend in children being victimized at a younger age.
- Presenters also provided an update on the COVID-19 pandemic from a prosecutorial perspective, the logistical difficulty of working in this field while working from home, and the effects on workers’ mental health during the pandemic. Circumstances are also challenging for law enforcement officers who must enter places to execute warrants where elderly parents or other children in the home may not be aware of a perpetrator’s activities, making it especially difficult for officers to perform their work.
- Discussions also focused on how important the collaboration between police and school jurisdictions is in educating children about the risks of this crime, including the important work of the Canadian Centre of Child Protection (C3P), who deliver training in schools through training workshops, such as “Commit to Kids”, which 70% of schools in Ontario have already received.
- Members of the audience asked presenters to elaborate on other key partners who could be involved in protecting children from online child sexual abuse. Presenters identified digital industry and financial institutions as key private sector stakeholders that could be engaged.
- Discussions also touched on an Alberta law which requires trial judges to see the evidence in order to make appropriate sentencing decisions based on seriousness of images/videos and other evidence (Regina-Hunt Decision).
- This third webinar session concluded with presenters discussing best practices to combat OCSE they hope could be implemented in Canada. Examples included: tougher sentencing for perpetrators of OCSE; requiring suspects to provide passwords for devices; use of civil tort law processes to support victims; and learning from the work of the Queensland Police Service Task Force Argos, which is responsible for investigations of OCSE in Australia.
Webinar 4: International Developments and Collaboration on Online CSE - February 17, 2021
- The RCMP, through its work with the Virtual Global Taskforce, led the International Research Project on the Health and Wellness of Employees Working in Online Child Sexual Exploitation, which includes best practices to support the mental health of individuals combatting online child sexual exploitation (OCSE).
- The Voluntary Principles to Counter Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, developed by Five Eyes partners in consultation with the digital industry, were launched in March, 2020. The intent is that these 11 principles will be adopted by a wide spectrum of digital industry stakeholders and companies, provide a shared framework to combat OCSE, drive collective action, establish a baseline standard for safety, and complement initiatives specific to each partner country.
- The Canadian Centre for Child Protection (C3P) supports efforts to combat OCSE in Canada and abroad through the use of innovative digital technologies, such as Project Arachnid.
- In 2020/21, Cybertip.ca processed over 1.6 million reports, including URLs detected by Project Arachnid. As of February 2021, Project Arachnid is detecting approximately 440,000 new (to Arachnid) images per month. Ten other child protection organizations around the world are also accessing and classifying child sexual abuse material within Project Arachnid.
- Through the upcoming 2021 Survivor’s Survey, C3P will continue to learn how to best support victims and families of this crime.
- The first presentation was co-delivered by Ms. Kristin Duval and Ms. Cheryl Tremblay, Senior Research Analysts in the Program Research and Development Unit, Strategic and Operational Services, Sensitive and Specialized Investigative Services Branch of the RCMP. Ms. Duval and Ms. Tremblay presented on best practices for taking care of the mental health of caregivers, discussed the importance of health and wellness for professionals working to combat online child sexual exploitation (OCSE) and outlined some of the Health and Wellness resources available at the RCMP. They also highlighted some of the coping strategies that could be adopted at work and outside the work environment to minimize and mitigate stress for employees working to combat OCSE.
- Many of the various mitigation tools, techniques, and strategies that were identified through the Virtual Global Taskforce International Research Project on the Health and Wellness of Employees Working in Online Child Sexual Exploitation (led by the RCMP) have been implemented and operationalised within the Sensitive and Specialized Investigative Services Branch. Ms. Duval and Ms. Tremblay spoke about a number of the variables that contribute to a positive work environment, and which demonstrate the importance of a holistic approach to health and wellbeing. Although their work focuses on the law enforcement mental health, many of these practices can be used by other professionals working in the field of OCSE.
- Next, Mr. Mark Schindel, Acting Director of the Serious and Organized Crime Division at Public Safety Canada, presented on a new international framework to guide industry efforts to combat OCSE. More specifically, Mr. Schindel presented on The Voluntary Principles to Counter Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. Over the course of 2019, Public Safety Canada and Justice Canada worked with Five Eyes partners (Australia, New Zealand, UK and US) and digital industry representatives to develop 11 key guiding Principles to provide a shared framework for industry to combat OCSE, drive collective action, and establish a baseline standard for safety. These Voluntary Principles were launched in March 2020 at the White House in Washington, DC, with the aim to highlight best practices for how digital industry can combat OCSE. With ongoing engagement from the Five Eyes partners, the WePROTECT Global Alliance, which currently comprises 97 governments, 25 technology companies and 30 civil society organizations, will promote and support the adoption of the Voluntary Principles at a global level to drive collective action. The WePROTECT Global Alliance will also use available data and evidence to highlight key areas where industry should focus efforts going forward.
- In closing this webinar series, Ms. Signy Arnason, Associate Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection (C3P) presented C3P’s mission and mandate to help reduce the number of cases of OCSE both in Canada and internationally; raise awareness of this crime to the public; and support victims and their families. Ms. Arnason also provided an update on the progress of Project Arachnid, C3P’s automated tool that crawls the internet and detects child sexual abuse material located online, and C3P’s work with survivors of OCSE, including The Phoenix 11, who spoke at the launch of the Voluntary Principles. Ms. Arnason also spoke about C3P’s unique data and the importance of sharing this information with governments around the world. Going forward, C3P plans to launch the 2021 International Survivors’ Survey, which will serve as a path forward in healing and hearing the voices of and supporting survivors of this horrible crime.
- Discussions in this session focused on international recognition of the importance for organizations to ensure the mental health and wellness of all professionals working to reduce cases of OCSE, including for those who support survivors. The discussion also highlighted various best practices for supporting employee wellness. Panelists agreed that there is no “one size fits all” approach to a healthy and safe working environment and that active communication and feedback between employees and managers is crucial for an optimal sense of safety and support of teams.
- Panelists also spoke about the ongoing collaborative work and partnership between and among digital industry partners in adopting and implementing the Voluntary Principles and how they are individually accountable. There was also discussion around the need for industry to have better transparency policies and practices.
- Finally, panelists spoke of some of the best practices involved in working with survivors who share their stories and testimonials, highlighting the importance of support through this process, and the need to be aware of the complex trauma and sensitive nature of sharing individual accounts safely and anonymously.
Public Safety Canada would like to thank the presenters and participants for sharing their expertise and experiences. Without their participation, the 2020-21 stakeholder engagement webinar series would not have been possible.
A key takeaway from this webinar series was the importance of sharing information, disseminating knowledge, and inter-jurisdictional collaboration in order to more effectively prevent online child sexual exploitation, prosecute offenders, and support individuals affected by this crime.
The Government of Canada is committed to working with Provinces and Territories, non-governmental organizations, stakeholders, and international partners to combat the complex crime of online child sexual exploitation.
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