Garda struggling to tackle massive increase in child abuse cases, GRA conference hears

Delegates told that lack of resources has led to three year backlog in examining devices

Gardaí do not have the resources to tackle the rise in online child abuse which is "spiralling out of control", the Garda Representative Association (GRA) has heard.

Delegates at the annual conference have heard the Garda National Cybercrime Bureau (GNCCB) is understaffed and many open positions remain unfilled despite candidates successfully completing their training three years ago.

“We simply do not have the resources to adequately investigate these types of crimes and it has spiralled out of control in the last number of years,” Damien McCarthy, a GRA representative for South Central Dublin said.

He said the Garda is decades behind in terms of technology and unable to process the thousands of referrals it receives from technology companies and other agencies.

There is currently a three year backlog in examining devices seized by gardaí on suspicion of containing child abuse material, which is referred to in Irish legislation as child pornography.

Mr McCarthy said this is a matter of “grave concern” as the devices may contain details of potential victims of abuse. “We need to get to them without delay.”

He pointed to figures from the European Commission showing a 6,000 per cent increase in the sharing of child abuse imagery during the last decade. "Have we responded adequately as an organisation? I don't think we have," he said.

Many of the referrals to the Garda come from Hotline.ie, a national reporting service for suspected abuse material. In 2020, it received 10,583 referrals, the third year in a row where referrals had topped 10,000.

Thousands more referrals come from the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) which is based in the United States. Social media companies such as Facebook report suspected abuse material on its platforms to the NCMEC which examines it before sending it onto national police organisations.

Any material believed to involve an Irish based victim or perpetrator is sent to the Garda for further action. Between 2019 and 2021, gardaí received 13,612 NCMEC reports.

Mr McCarthy said the strain on Garda resources has been exacerbated by the number of cases it is receiving from the NCMEC. He said he believes the Garda is struggling to hold onto trained cybercrime analysts and that some gardaí are leaving the force due to frustrations in bringing perpetrators to justice.

He said he is also concerned with that Irish children are being subject to “catfishing” where they are persuaded, by strangers online, to send on sensitive images. These can then be used to blackmail the victim.

Mr McCarthy called for a dedicated child exploitation unit in every division to help address the problem.

Asked for comment, a Garda spokesman said the organisation has established Cyber Satellite Hubs in Cork, Mullingar, Galway and Wexford “to provide a more localised response to cybercrime investigations throughout the country.”