Backlogs a dangerous flaw in child porn and abuse inquiries

Resource and data issues leave perpetrator at large – and child vulnerable to further abuse

Up to 700 online child abuse investigations have been put on hold while gardaí await clarification of data protection issues. Stock photograph: Getty

Up to 700 online child abuse investigations have been put on hold while gardaí await clarification of data protection issues. Stock photograph: Getty

 

News that cases involving possession or distribution of child abuse material are taking nearly five years to complete will come as little surprise to gardaí and child protection workers.

The issue has been well-known for years and, while there have been some reforms in recent years, the backlog remains an intractable problem.

There are several reasons the backlog of child abuse investigations is taking so long to clear, according to Garda sources. Additional resources have been assigned to the unit “but it needs much more”, said one member who said it is currently “running to stand still”.

Another said the backlog is being cleared but “it is a slow process”. They expressed hope that the current pause in investigating cases due to the Graham Dwyer Supreme Court appeal may give the unit “breathing space” to address the backlog. However, it is only a temporary reprieve.

Up to 700 online child abuse investigations have been put on hold while gardaí await clarification of data protection issues relating to the case.

Dwyer is challenging the validity of provisions of a data law under which certain mobile phone call records were put into evidence at his criminal trial for the murder of Elaine O’Hara.

Investigators do not have legal powers to demand passwords for seized hard drives, meaning devices often have to be sent abroad

Highlighting the workload involved in child abuse investigations, gardaí say the proliferation of electronic devices in Irish households means they often have to seize many items, from iPhones to tablets and sometimes even game consoles, in case they contain relevant material. On average only 60 per cent of seized devices will end up containing illegal material but all must be forensically examined.

Furthermore, the Garda does not have the capacity to deal with devices with sophisticated encryption. Investigators do not have legal powers to demand passwords for seized hard drives, meaning devices often have to be sent abroad to be cracked, further adding to delays.

There has also been a massive increase in the number of new cases coming through. In 2013 there were 116 new cases, a figure which tripled to 392 in 2018.

Detection methods

At least some of these new cases are down to better detection methods, both by gardaí and foreign police forces who pass on intelligence about Irish offenders. Others are down to increasingly strict obligations on internet service providers to alert gardaí if they see evidence of customers accessing illegal material.

Maeve Lewis of One in Four: “There is a fair body of international research showing that for many people, downloading images of child abuse is a pathway into contact offending.” Stock photograph: Getty
Maeve Lewis of One in Four: “There is a fair body of international research showing that for many people, downloading images of child abuse is a pathway into contact offending.” Stock photograph: Getty

The delays are also putting prosecutions at risk. The Garda Inspectorate uncovered evidence that some devices in Garda custody were not being stored properly, leading to them becoming unreadable.

The danger of delays in examining devices is shown in a case cited by the inspectorate involving a device seized in 2011. It became caught up in the backlog and was not examined for three years.

“When the forensic examination was eventually conducted three years later, an image was found showing an indecent assault on a child. The delay in the examination prevented the earlier identification and rescuing of that child.”

Each child abuse image or video is “a crime scene”, says Maeve Lewis, executive director of the charity One in Four which offers treatment to both victims and perpetrators of abuse.

“When they are examined, there will be an effort to determine where the image was taken. If there is a huge delay it becomes almost impossible to locate the child in the image who is very definitely at risk from abuse.”

Gardaí are obliged to inform Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, if a person suspected of possessing child abuse material is a potential danger to children.

“Interventions would differ depending on the circumstances of the case,” a spokeswoman said.

There is a need to plough resources into this space so the guards can keep track of these people and shut down demand

“In some cases Tusla will put in place safeguards to reduce the risk to the child, up to and including applying for them to be taken into care.”

However, Ms Lewis says the agency sometimes shows little interest in online child abuse cases.

Images vs contact

“We notify everyone who comes on our programme to Tusla and try to arrange them to meet a child protection worker but if it is an online offence Tusla are often reluctant to get involved. Which is quite misguided in my view.”

A further concern is the possibility of suspects committing further sexual crimes while their case is being investigated.

Up to 700 online child abuse investigations are on hold while gardaí await clarification of data protection issues.
Up to 700 online child abuse investigations are on hold while gardaí await clarification of data protection issues.

“There is a fair body of international research showing that for many people, downloading images of child abuse is a pathway into contact offending,” said Ms Lewis. This is especially true if those people are waiting five years for the completion of the case against them, she added.

The Children’s Right Alliance said it is concerned gardaí don’t have enough resources to adequately tackle the problem.

“The more money you put to it, the more successful prosecutions you are likely to complete. That thereby reduces demand,” chief executive Tanya Ward said. “Because people who download images of child abuse create demand for more children to be harmed either in Ireland or abroad.

“There is a need to plough resources into this space so the guards can keep track of these people and shut down demand.”

In the last three years, Garda management have attempted to reduce the backlog by assigning computer experts at a divisional level. “Triage technology” is also being deployed to quickly analyse devices at an early stage to check if they contain suspicious material. If an immediate risk to a child is identified, cases now can be dealt with in a matter of months, gardaí say.

The Garda and the Director of Public Prosecutions have also held discussions about only requiring the first 200 images or videos on a device to be analysed before initiating a prosecution. However the proposal was shelved following concerns that the practice could result in child victims at risk of further abuse being overlooked.