The stark reality of the internet’s effect on child abuse has been revealed in figures which show the startling growth in the number of indecent images seized by police.
While just 7,000 hard copy images were circulating in 1990, one offender in Wales last year was caught with 400,000.
The NSPCC is calling for urgent action to stamp out the illegal trade in child abuse images after figures revealed that 218 arrests were made by the four Welsh police forces last year (2011-12).
The charity found Dyfed-Powys Police confiscated 28,176 images in a year, the only force that provided this information, a stark contrast to 1990 – before the internet became hugely popular – when the Home Office estimated there were just 7,000 hard copy images in circulation in the UK.
Now, the NSPCC said at least five times that amount are being confiscated every single day.
In some investigations, it said the sheer scale of images is so immense that police concentrate on a sample. The pictures are graded from level one – the lowest – to category five, which involves sadism. Many of the pictures involve children under 10 and even babies appear in some.
It highlights a case involving Jeffrey Gravell, from Burry Port, who was found guilty of possession of more than 390,000 images and subsequently jailed for two years.
NSPCC national head of service for Wales, Des Mannion said: “The number of these dreadful images is absolutely appalling and let’s not forget only a handful of police forces could supply figures so the true amount is likely to be much higher.
“The truly awful thing is that more and more children are being abused so these pictures can be produced and once in circulation they may stay there for many years. If we can halt this vile trade we will be saving countless children from suffering sexual assaults which have a huge impact on their lives.”
The charity also found that as the number of child abuse images in circulation has increased, so have the number of arrests. Since 1995 the number of people convicted in England and Wales has risen more than 1,700% from 85 to 1,495 last year (2011).
John Carr, Secretary of the Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety, said the seemingly never-ending conveyor belt of images suggests more children are being abused to satisfy demand – and victims were getting younger and the assaults more violent.
He said: “Some of those who are caught with these abusive images say they had a sexual interest in children but had been too scared to do anything about it until the internet came along- then it opened the door for them.
“And once they’re in they crave more sickening levels of abuse. It’s not unknown for an offender to go very quickly from viewing pictures of secondary school children to images of three-year-olds who have been bound, gagged and assaulted.”
Welsh Police forces said they were working together and with the Child Exploitation Online Prevention Centre to tackle all allegations of child exploitation.
A Gwent Police spokeswoman said the force’s highly skilled Hi Tech Crime Unit and specialist officers in our Public Protection Unit who are expertly trained to tackle this area of criminality enables it to identify and detect more offences and take the appropriate action.
Detective Superintendent Lorraine Davies, head of Public Protection at South Wales Police, said the force works closely with CEOP and other forces to tackle all allegations of child exploitation.
He said: “The safety and welfare of children is paramount. Every reported incident of child exploitation online is dealt with dynamically by the Force and the offenders are brought to justice promptly due to the safeguarding issues involved.
“We are committed to route out offenders who think that possessing or distributing indecent images of children is something they can get away with. Our message to them is, quite simply, ‘you need to think again’.