The actions of Online Child Abuse Activist Groups are putting innocent people in danger, interfering with ongoing police investigations, and risking the course of fair justice.
That’s the warning from Detective Inspector Paula Eccles from North Yorkshire Police’s Safeguarding team, who is urging those involved with such groups to leave investigations to the police.
Over recent years there has been an increase in the number of these groups nationally, including numerous instances in North Yorkshire where groups have live-streamed or posted videos on social media while confronting individuals they believe are involved in grooming children online.
This is usually after using a ‘decoy’ victim – when an adult pretends to be a child online – to interact with potential suspects.
The groups tend to call the police during the confrontation and when social media posts have already been issued – this is generally far too late to prevent hampering the course of justice and also poses a serious risk of harm to everyone involved, including the group members themselves.
DI Eccles said: “The police service does not endorse Online Child Abuse Activist Groups and we will not work with them. Unlike our highly-trained officers in the Online Abuse & Exploitation Team and the Digital Forensics Unit, they operate without any procedures to keep people safe.
“Accused people can become vulnerable to self-harm and there are cases around the country of people dying by suicide because of the action of such groups.
“Innocent family members can also feel threatened during the confrontations and subsequent harassment, which is a terrible situation to have forced upon them.
“Another grave concern is that some of the activity of these groups is a cover for crimes like blackmail and extortion.”
DI Eccles added: “There is no way of making sure that these groups act on reliable evidence and we have seen instances of the wrong people being targeted such as vulnerable adults. This creates unnecessary anguish and diverts vital police resources away from other victims.
“The standard of evidence that is gathered is also often poor, there are issues with legal disclosure, and the way the groups share their evidence publicly online before it has been tested at court.
“Some evidential issues can even cause cases to collapse. This is completely unacceptable.”
How people can support the police
Protecting children is a policing priority – every month nationally the police arrest more than 400 people for child sexual abuse and protect more than 500 children from harm.
North Yorkshire Police has a dedicated Online Abuse & Exploitation Team and a Digital Forensics Unit to target suspected offenders and bring them to justice.
DI Eccles said: “Our specialist police teams have the expertise and experience to carry out thorough, complex and intelligence-led investigations, as well as preparing evidence that can stand up to scrutiny by the Crown Prosecution Service and ultimately presented before a court of law to determine guilt or innocence.
“There is simply no place for reckless vigilante practices when it comes to bringing serious offenders to justice.”
There are legitimate ways for concerned members of the public to lend their support, including joining the Special Constabulary or becoming a Volunteer.
More information is available about these roles on the North Yorkshire Police website https://northyorkshire.police.uk/jobs/
Reporting suspected crimes and seeking help regarding indecent images of children and sexual abuse
- Please contact North Yorkshire Police on 101. If you are in immediate danger, always dial 999 for an emergency response
- Crimestoppers – 0800 55511 – crimestoppers-uk.org – anonymous reporting
- Child Exploitation Online Protection command (CEOP) – http://ceop.police.uk/
- Internet Watch Foundation – https://www.iwf.org.uk/
- Marie Collins Foundation – mariecollinsfoundation.org.uk – support for children and young people who have been abused via the internet and mobile technologies
- Stop it Now! – www.stopitnow.org.uk – Helpline 0808 1000 900 – confidential help and support for people who concerned about their or someone else’s thoughts and behaviour towards children
- Victims who would prefer not to go direct to the police and are not in immediate danger, can contact Bridge House, North Yorkshire’s Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC), on 0330 223 0362, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.bridgehousesarc.org/
- You can also contact Supporting Victims in North Yorkshire at supportingvictims.org or call 01609 643100
- NSPCC Helplines: Anyone concerned about a child can contact the NSPCC Helpline for advice on 0808 8005000; Adult victims of non-recent sexual abuse can also get in touch for support; Childline is available for young people on 0800 1111 or at www.childline.org.uk
Online Child Abuse Activist Groups – Q&As
These groups are helping to catch paedophiles – isn’t that a good thing?
We understand the concerns people have in relation to the safety of their children online and the desire to protect them. The police are best placed to deal with this.
There are a number of concerns with the way these groups work. They are not targeted to high priority cases and so divert police resources, the evidence provided is often very weak and doesn’t stand up in court, some of these groups use their activity as a cover for criminal behaviour, they do not provide any protection for victims and they put offenders and their innocent families at risk from attack and harassment.
Why can’t police work with them to improve how they work?
Police can’t endorse these groups because we have many issues with the way they are operating, as outlined above.
These groups are only a thing because police aren’t doing enough work on this.
Protecting children from abuse is a top priority for every police force. More than 400 people are arrested in the UK every month for child sexual abuse and more than 500 children are protected from harm every month. We will investigate every allegation of abuse, no matter where or who it comes from.
Aren’t there some groups who are doing this work in a proper way and are getting good results for you?
We will investigate every allegation of abuse, no matter where or who it comes from. In some cases, these groups will identify an offender, but their work is not targeted at the highest risk and so diverts police resources.
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