Protecting children from the risk of harm?:a critical review of the law's response(s) to online child sexual grooming in England and Wales

Mooney, Jamie-Lee (2014) Protecting children from the risk of harm?:a critical review of the law's response(s) to online child sexual grooming in England and Wales. In: Minding minors wandering the web. Information Technology and Law . T.M.C. Asser Press, The Hague, pp. 283-299. ISBN 9789462650046

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The primary argument this chapter makes is that the existing law may inadvertently underplay or even increase the potential risk of harm from Online Child Sexual Grooming (OCSG), as the OCSG process is not criminalised by the so called ‘grooming offence’ under section 15 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (s.15 offence). The history of child sexual grooming is difficult to put into context because it has only recently been recognised, not only academically, but legally, as a distinct stage of the process of child sexual abuse. Online grooming has proved similarly difficult to define. This chapter explores the phenomenon of OCSG alongside current understandings of the grooming process to illustrate how OCSG allows a groomer to progress through the stages of grooming more quickly because, for example, personal information is readily available on social networking sites, and enables the groomer to target several children at once. The internet is a site of vulnerability not only because of the potential it offers to access children across national boundaries but also because of the relative anonymity it affords to the groomer. Groomers who target adolescents online are better able to conceal their identities than ‘face-to-face’ groomers, and can entice adolescents into ‘virtual relationships’. The online groomer’s development of trust and compliance may involve sexually explicit communications and the exchange of sexually explicit images of the child, a valuable tool to ensure further compliance and secrecy due to the threat of the material being publicly released. Having analysed the phenomenon of OCSG, the chapter then turns to its central focus: the way in which the law tackles OCSG and the limitations of the current s.15 offence. Despite the absence of a common definition of the phenomenon and ambiguity surrounding what constitutes grooming behaviour, it received significant attention by the legislature several years ago, leading to the announcement and enactment of the s.15 offence (which relates to meeting with a child following grooming). Notwithstanding the law’s acknowledgment of the dangers the internet poses to children, online grooming behaviour and ‘meetings’ in the virtual world that occur as a part of OCSG are excluded from the s.15 offence, despite amendments made in 2008 that were directly aimed at providing a greater level of protection to children by intervening in the grooming process at an earlier stage. This chapter concludes that the vagueness of what counts as grooming behaviour in the legislation encourages misconceptions about the dangers and risks OCSG poses to children and the circumstances in which grooming and online meetings could occur. This could result in children being offered less effective protection from sexual abuse.

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16 Jul 2014 10:30
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16 Sep 2023 03:01