How Germany and the EU combat child abuse | Germany | In-depth news and reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW


“We commit to strengthening our fight against human trafficking and our efforts to prevent and combat the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children around the world, both online and offline,” the leaders pledged. of the G7 in their final declaration of the summit in Germany.

Wibke Müller of the victims’ group Brave Movement called this a historic step. “When I was a child, nobody protected me from sexual violence,” she said. “Today, for the first time, G7 leaders collectively pledged to be the protectors all children deserve.”

Germany has recorded an increase in cases of child sexual abuse. Yet another was uncovered in Wermelskirchen, a town outside the western city of Cologne, most recently when a 44-year-old babysitter allegedly sexually abused 12 babies, toddlers and disabled children. His youngest victim appears to be only a month old.

The last major case to come to light involved a male babysitter

The police caught him at his computer and arrested him. He is believed to have exchanged child abuse images and videos with more than 70 other people. The investigation is still ongoing.

The North Rhine-Westphalia state police uncovered several large abuse networks involving multiple perpetrators and victims.

Kerstin Claus, head of the German government’s new Independent Commission for Child Sexual Abuse, told DW that “the Wermelskirchen case illustrates that, via the spread of digital media, the most monstrous acts of violence become more and more visible, although they existed before the emergence of the Darknet.”

The difference is that “today we can prove that violence took place,” she said.

Kerstin Claus

Kerstin Claus has been an Independent Child Sexual Abuse Commissioner since April 2022

A race against time

Finding victims and perpetrators is the work of the Cologne Police Cybercrime Task Force, led by prosecutor Markus Hartmann, which has launched more than 9,300 cases against nearly 9,900 suspects in the past two years.

Much information about online sexual violence comes from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in the United States.

A prerequisite for prosecution is that perpetrators be identified quickly, but Hartmann said information often reaches investigators too long after the fact for IP addresses to be traceable. For this reason, Federal Minister of the Interior Nancy Faeser supported a measure that would oblige Internet service providers to keep this information longer.

A police officer looks at a computer screen showing images of child abuse (pixelated)

Police statistics show a steady increase in the number of child sexual abuse cases uncovered each year

mountains of data

Commissioner Claus underlines that the victims are “often at the mercy of their executioners for months and years”, sometimes in their own family or in their immediate environment. The number of unreported cases is likely several times higher than the statistics show, she says, calling it a “scandal” of what is still unknown.

Victims advising Commissioner Claus have pointed out that sexual violence “remains one of the safest crimes for perpetrators”, and that two-thirds of investigative procedures are dropped, especially if it comes down to the word of the perpetrator. the victim against the word of the perpetrator.

More than 30 terabytes of data were seized in Wermelskirchen, and the NRW cybercrime unit uses artificial intelligence tools that can identify 90% of child abuse images, Hartmann says. This allows investigators to quickly see large amounts of data to determine if a child somewhere is currently being abused.

Ultimately, however, humans must assess images and video, so there are calls for more personnel and equipment.

markus hartmann

Prosecutor Markus Hartmann heads the Cologne police cybercrime task force

International cooperation needed

Statistics show that Europe is a hub for abuse images. Commissioner Claus therefore welcomes the European Commission’s plans to create a European center to complement national law enforcement agencies and support victims in their right to remove depictions of abuse.

Markus Hartmann would also like to see more international cooperation. There has already been some success working with specially trained partners in the Baltic states, Hartmann said. “Sometimes cooperation beyond European borders has been even faster than beyond [German] state borders,” he notes.

Awareness has grown in recent years, says Commissioner Claus, “but many people still don’t want to admit that it affects the children around them. “We all know victims, so we also know authors,” she said.

Primary school children during lessons

Experts estimate that in every school class, one or two children are victims of abuse.

Early childhood trauma – shorter life expectancy

Psychologist Matthias Franz has worked with victims of child abuse. He explains that even infants store memories of events that caused them fear and pain in a special part of their brain, the amygdala. Thus, the first experiences of abuse or violence can be registered in the pre-linguistic memory.

“If I experienced bad things in my childhood, the memories might resurface 40 years later, for example, if my boss at work gives me a look that reminds me of how my father looked before he beat me “, explains Franz. “Stress hormones are then released which can trigger a panic attack and so I may end up in hospital with a suspected heart attack.” Often these patients, says Franz, are simply sent home. If they’re lucky, a doctor may diagnose a panic attack and suggest psychotherapy.

“We know from long-term studies of severely abused children that they are much more likely to develop psychosomatic or addictive disorders later on,” says Franz. “There are studies that show that children who have suffered severe abuse can have a reduced life expectancy of up to 20 years.”

The psychologist says it should be easier for adult victims to be diagnosed and have easy access to therapy.

Mathias Franz

Psychologist Matthias Franz works with victims of child abuse and with perpetrators

Research on authors

When the perpetrators are unmasked, their colleagues and neighbors often remark on how discreet they seemed.

Psychologist Matthias Franz explains that many perpetrators lack empathy and seek power over weaker people. “It gives some people… an intoxicating sense of omnipotence to leave all ethical boundaries behind,” he says.

The dissolution of borders on the Internet acts as an accelerator: perpetrators mutually reinforce the belief in the legitimacy of their actions. “We urgently need more research on this,” says Franz. “How can abusers be like this? Is this treatable? »

Primary school children during lessons

Experts estimate that in every school class, one or two children are victims of abuse.

Prevention and protection

Hartmann’s Cybercrime Task Force also conducts public information campaigns to warn potential perpetrators that they are at risk of getting caught. Investigators have also produced educational materials to tackle what is known as grooming, when an abuser first establishes contact with a child over a long period of time to make them more likely to be abused.

Education of children, teachers and parents is important, says Claus, but it also calls for binding rules for digital spaces in which children largely roam alone: ​​default protection settings, offers of help low-threshold, stricter age restrictions and website moderation.

And she wants to launch a campaign later this year to make sure people know exactly where to get help to protect children from abuse, just like they know how to sound a fire alarm.

This article was originally written in German.

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