top of page
  • Michael Sheath

Child sexual abuse prevention in the online environment

Updated: Jul 21, 2022


When I trained as a Social Worker in the last century, our lecturer told us a story. A man is sitting by a river watching the water flow by, when he sees a child who is drowning. He jumps in and rescues her. Five minutes later he sees another child who is drowning, so he jumps in again, and rescues him. This happens all day long, and he is getting a little tired of it, so he walks along the river bank, upstream, and sees a man who is throwing children into the river. He tackles the man and calls the police. Our lecturer looked up, in triumph at his story and said ‘And that’s why prevention matters. You can rescue damaged and traumatised children all day long, but if you challenge and work with the people that damage and traumatise them it’s possible to avoid them being damaged at all.’

Thirty years later, we need to consider that principle in terms of working with CSEM. We can, and must spend time and energy removing CSEM from the internet, and prosecuting men and women who view it, but what would going ‘upstream’ look like? The ‘downstream’ picture is that every year, the number of images of child sexual abuse loaded onto the internet increases, and so then must the number of children abused to make that material. Numbers of sites found, images removed and individual viewers of it being detected and prosecuted increase too. Anything that measures the extent to which children are being sexually exploited in the off line world to feed a demand created in the online world seems to indicate the problem is becoming worse. A lack of preventative action on the internet means that more and more children are being sexually abused and exploited, (and most of them will never be identified), and more and more viewers are either indulging or developing a sexual interest in children that has or may yet be expressed in the offline world.

It is possible to engage offenders in the environment they inhabit, and it is our moral duty to do so, however challenging or distasteful that task may seem. Simply put, the issue is one of demand and supply: if we can reduce the volume of offenders by deterrence, or by diverting them into treatment then we can reduce the numbers of children who are exploited and then repeatedly victimised by having their images disseminated and viewed thereafter. The Europol P2P project and the Stop it Now! UK and Ireland deterrence project, amongst others, suggest it is possible to engage offenders with warning messages and educational materials in order to give them an opportunity to desist and to seek help. Messages from offenders we have engaged, both face to face and anonymously, suggest that some individuals will seek help if it is offered to them. They describe the seductive nature of the internet, the compelling nature of online pornography and CSEM, but many express an intent to seek help and desist that can only be realised if we provide services for them. Direct work with offenders is necessary and defensible if we are to have a meaningful impact upon the biggest safeguarding challenge of the decade.

Michael Sheath BA (Hons), MA, Dip SW, Certificate in Sexual Addiction (ATSAC).

Michael worked for the Probation Service in community and prison roles from 1984 to 1997, the last nine years as a qualified Probation Officer. Since 1997 he has been employed as a Practitioner, latterly a Principal Practitioner and Manager, by The Lucy Faithfull Foundation, a charity dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse, which runs the anonymous Helpline for offenders and potential offenders, Stop it Now! UK and Ireland.

Michael’s duties in the Foundation have included conducting individual risk assessments in cases of historic, recent and alleged sexual abuse, he works with male and female offenders and alleged offenders and their partners. He has prepared some hundreds of reports for the Family Courts, and appears there as an Expert Witness. He has conducted ‘whole community’ safeguarding audits in a number of British Overseas Territories, specifically Pitcairn, The Falkland Islands, Montserrat, St Helena and Ascension. He is a Trainer for the ‘Safer Recruitment Consortium’, which delivers safer recruitment training for schools and the wider children’s workforce. Michael is a staff trainer on the annual Europol course on combatting online sexual exploitation of children, where he lectures on offender profiling and staff self care.

In addition to his role in the Foundation, Michael acts as an independent consultant to West Mercia Police, in respect to Sexual Harm Prevention Order Applications. He is a visiting lecturer at the University of Birmingham’s Psychology Department. He sits on the ‘Sports Resolutions’ Panel, as a judicial panel member and chairs the Football Associations Safeguarding panel. He is involved in various Europe wide bodies, including the EU Child Sexual Abuse Project. He is the Safeguarding Governor at a Secondary school, and has the same role in a local theatre company, VAMOS, where he is a Trustee.

More information:


bottom of page