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28 March 2023

Today, we are delighted to publish the third in the series of our ‘Faithfull Papers’ all about the impact of our Family and Friends Forum. Launched in 2018, the forum is a space for family members and friends of people who have been viewing sexual images of children or sexually communicating with a child online.

The report is based on an evaluation led by Professor Rachel Armitage (University of Huddersfield) to better understand the experience of, and explore the impact on, the family and friends of people who have offended online. Professor Armitage’s evaluation analysed the effectiveness of the forum which is visited by around 40,000 people every year and nearly 2,200 people have posted on the forum.

We are recommending that statutory agencies treat family members of people who have committed online child sexual abuse offences as ‘secondary victims’, and are themselves provided with support.

As set out in the report, people who should be treated as ‘secondary victims’ are present in almost half of online child sexual abuse referrals, according to the report and online child sexual abuse is a growing problem. According to figures from the NSPCC. 31,600 online child sex offences were recorded for the year 2020/21. It has become increasingly challenging for the criminal justice system to process the number of people committing these offences. Figures from the National Police Chiefs’ Council suggest that the police are now dealing with more than 900 people per month who are alleged to have committed an online child sexual abuse offence.

The report analyses the potential for PTSD in families of people who offended as the trauma experienced by families after their loved one’s arrest is unlikely to be a one-off incident. Stressors and strains will continue and change over time, as family members process the shock of what has happened, the offence, the children who have been harmed and, in some cases, whether their own children have been abused.

According to the report, family members report feelings of guilt, shame, perceived discrimination and stigmatisation and, for some, these impacts are likely made worse by loneliness and isolation, with little or no access to support. A non-offending partner can also face financial hardships, including loss of income or costs associated with recovery or building a new life.

Families typically first become aware of offending behaviour when the police arrive at the family home, which is frequently being referred to as ‘the knock’, with families who have experienced it often describing their lives as ‘pre-knock’ or ‘post-knock’. This is the beginning of an often long and painful process for family members. When there are children in the family, safeguarding practices require the police to conduct ‘the knock’ at a time when children will be present in the property to try to ensure their safety – but this can also cause trauma.

Deborah Denis, Chief Executive of The Lucy Faithfull Foundation, said:

‘’Online child sexual abuse is a serious crime with tragic consequences for the victims and their families, and both clearly need to be offered support.

This paper clearly describes the trauma that families go through when a loved one is arrested for online child sexual abuse offences. While the makeup and the specific experience of each family might differ, what does not differ is the huge impact on their lives and the lives of those around them, including their children. Hundreds of arrests are being made each month and the response, support and services for all those affected are currently inadequate.

But there are steps being taken by charities, academics and families who have been through the experience with a view to driving change. For example, both England and Wales, and Scotland, have working groups looking into these issues, which include representatives from law enforcement and other statutory agencies. We know the police, in particular, are working hard to improve things, but more must be done and that includes ensuring the necessary resources are available to forces. 

We are also working with the Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse to develop a resource for social workers engaged with families when a parent has viewed sexual images of children online, which we hope goes some way to helping social workers make practical, informed decisions to minimise risk of reoffending, safeguard children and support the family.

There is much more that needs to be done - we must do better for these families.’’

Rachel Armitage, Professor of Criminology at the University of Huddersfield, said:

“This research, commissioned by The Lucy Faithfull Foundation, is vital as too little focus has been given to evidencing the impact of online child sexual abuse on the families of suspects in the past.

We now know that the police warrant is a trauma event, and this is often witnessed by the children of suspects. Whilst police have to conduct their investigations, we know when the trauma will occur, who will experience this and how they are likely to be affected. As with other social harms, we must minimise the harms to families by conducting the warrant in a sensitive and empathetic way; allocating a police officer to focus on the family (a Family Officer/Family Liaison Officer) and referring families to support services such as The Lucy Faithfull Foundation’s Stop It Now! helpline and Family and Friends Forum, and peer support groups such as Talking Forward. Agencies such as Children’s Services, should also be trained in recognising the impacts on families and the likely trauma responses that they will experience.

Families may suffer trauma, grief, loss, isolation, shame, guilt and stigma. There is a high risk of financial and physical impacts and these are often felt most significantly by the remaining safeguarding parent/adult (who is more often than not, a female).

The disproportionate harms experienced by these women are a violence against women and girls issue and we look forward to seeing these harms recognised and addressed at a strategic level”.

Emma, whose loved one was arrested for viewing sexual images of children online and was a member of the steering group for the research, said:

‘’People think it stops after the knock, or the court case. But it doesn't. The impact keeps going, and going, and going. Your life is scrutinised and you find yourself judged for a crime that you did not commit or know anything about.

I was just an average mum, worrying about work deadlines and packed lunches. But the day I found that a close family member has accessed online images of child sexual abuse, my life changed forever.

I have young children and as I watched them play, I would fight away tears thinking of the victims in the images. I felt guilty that someone I loved had worsened their plight. I felt powerless. I wanted to reach out and confide in my friends, but I couldn’t. I lived in fear every day. Fear about the impacts on my children. Fear every time the doorbell or my phone rang. Fear of what was coming next.

My loved one felt that life would be easier for everyone if he wasn’t around. I felt the responsibility of keeping him alive. 

I carry a kind of guilt everywhere we go. I have a secret I can't tell anyone. It feels like I'm branded, like it's written on my forehead, like everyone knows. But in reality, they don't know. And it's the feeling that they could find out at any moment’’.


• The psychological impacts upon family, partners and children are extensive, long-term and affected by agency responses to the offence. The agencies involved in the process of conducting ‘the knock’ know when the initial investigation of the home will happen and who will be impacted. Where there is predictable exposure to potential trauma, agencies have a duty to adjust their responses to minimise harm for those caught in the ‘cross-fire’.

• Where children are known to be present, a specialist team, such as trained POLIT or other appropriately trained officers, should conduct ‘the knock’ and all efforts should be made to prioritise family welfare, including identifying a dedicated social worker or police officer who will help the family navigate the next few days, weeks and months.

• Police officers undertaking the initial investigation of the home should hand out a Family Pack that explains the investigation process and contains information on available support services for offending and non-offending members of the family.

• Access to such support services needs to be improved for all partners and children of people who have committed online child sexual abuse offences throughout the lengthy prosecution stage. Provision should not be a postcode lottery.

• Reporting standards relating to media coverage of people who have committed online child sexual abuse offences need to be reviewed and adjusted to protect family members from emotional and physical harm.

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