It was an ordinary summer evening in 2016 for Emma when her ex-husband, Ben, dropped their young children back after a weekend visit at his place. The couple had been divorced for less than a year. Their split had brought with it the usual pain and sadness that comes when a long relationship ends, but things were amicable. He lived nearby in the town they had grown up in and saw the children almost daily.Emma was running a bath for the kids when she heard a knock on the door: “I thought he had forgotten something.” Instead, she was confronted by a female police officer, behind whom was her ex-husband, standing by his car, surrounded by plainclothes police.
“I immediately thought someone was dead,” Emma says. “The policewoman told me to settle the children in front of the TV and before she even had time to tell me what had happened, the senior officer came in, looked me in the eye and said: ‘I’m so sorry, life is never going to be the same again. The next few months are going to be hell.’ And then they told me they were arresting Ben for accessing indecent images of children. I felt like the world dropped away.”
Stunned, Emma watched as officers searched the house and pulled out drawers, looking for phones and laptops. They took every device they could find and even packed up the children’s games consoles. As they did this, “the policewoman sat me down in the kitchen and explained what an indecent image was. She was saying something about categories A, B and C, and that they suspected he’d looked at all three. I had no idea what any of it meant. When she said category A involved penetration of minors, I wanted to throw up.”
Much of that evening is a blur for Emma, but one thing comes back to her “with the intensity of a flashback”. The female officer told her: “Don’t even tell close friends or family about this. There might be vigilante behaviour such as spray-painting your property.” Emma remembers this because it was the same advice she was given during her one and only conversation with social services after Ben’s arrest, when she was told: “Do not tell people. Your children might find they aren’t invited to playdates any more. Other mothers may question whether their children were safe under your care.”
After the police left, Emma, in a state of shock, put her children to bed. “I told them that police officers have to practise searching people’s houses and that’s what they were doing in our house. They were young enough that they were just happy to have been allowed to watch so much TV at bedtime.”
Once they were asleep, the panic hit. “I had the search warrant in front of me and I realised I couldn’t describe any of the officers or remember their names. I freaked out and told myself I had just been robbed. I called my local police station and said, ‘Does this officer exist?’ I’ll never forget the tone of the woman’s voice, as if I were an idiot for asking, when she said, ‘Yeah, he’s a police officer.’ I felt so stupid. But at that moment, the concept that my ex-husband had looked at child abuse images, and the concept that I had just been robbed – both were equally surreal.”
Families who have been through this experience call it “the knock”: the moment when police officers arrive at your door and your world falls apart. Around 850 people, mainly men, are arrested each month in England and Wales for downloading indecent images or grooming children online. In 2010 there were only 407 arrests across the entire year; since then there has been a staggering 25-fold rise that threatens to overwhelm UK police capacity.
One reason for this is the ease of accessing abusive material. Earlier this year, Rob Jones, director of threat leadership at the National Crime Agency, warned: “The prevalence on the open web of images of child sexual abuse – and the use of the web to groom and livestream abuse – represents a crisis for modern society.”
Most images are not on the dark web but “a few clicks away”, Jones says. According to police figures, their UK database of known child abuse images has 17m unique entries on it, and it is growing by 500,000 images every two months. New patterns of grooming have emerged over the last decade, particularly children being targeted via chat sites or livestreaming services, often in their own bedrooms. They are tricked into sending images of themselves, which are then used to blackmail them and further the abuse.
Michael Sheath is a counsellor at the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, a group that works to rehabilitate offenders. He believes that for some people, watching abuse-themed pornography, which is increasingly widespread, makes it easier for them to take the next step of watching real abuse of children. “There is a school of thought that some men were already interested in children and went off to look for it – that they are born paedophiles. But I think a lot of the men we work with go down a potentially escalating pathway.
Mainstream pornography sites are changing the threshold of what is normal and I think it’s dangerous. Of course most people can watch extreme porn and walk away, but I don’t see those people. What we are seeing on a daily basis is the conflation of easy access to hardcore and deviant pornography, and an interest in child molestation. The link is unambiguous.”
Rachel Armitage, professor of criminology at the University of Huddersfield, has studied the experiences of non-offending partners of men arrested for online child abuse crimes. Based on her research into “the knock”, Armitage says: “We believe there are around 300 families with children going through it each month in England and Wales. That’s 10 every day.”
The knock is a uniquely awful experience, hitting every unsuspecting family differently, but a pattern is discernible. A sudden arrest, a husband or father removed, phones and devices taken away for evidence, little information given about the nature or scale of the crime, and then silence. A mother is left to comfort her children and is often advised to conceal the truth for the sake of her family.
Charities such as Acts Fast, originally set up for the families of victims of abuse, have evolved to help the partners and children of offenders, having identified a massive need for support where there was none.
Emily Cursley, therapeutic sessional worker at Acts Fast, says police asked them to step in to support a specialist investigations team from Dorset. “We get on average three referrals a week (to help offenders’ families), that’s just locally. And we have noticed a significant increase over the past 18 months in families who need our support. But we really struggle to get funding because, both societally and legally, we don’t class these children as victims - yet of course they are.”
After his arrest, Ben was released on bail overnight. Emma woke up to a message saying “sorry”. When she called him, “he was so ashamed”. He said he had been watching porn more often because he was depressed about their divorce, and “a couple of times I clicked on things that might have been a bit dodgy”.
Emma and Ben married after meeting on a night out. “I thought he was funny and kind. Like me, he liked the outdoors.” The relationship fell apart, in ordinary ways, after their children came along. “I divorced him for many reasons – mainly because he was a lazy father and went out drinking too much – but this was not on my radar at all. All the passwords on his computers, the time spent online. I added two and two together and thought, ‘Ah, you’re having an affair.’”
Emma knew he watched porn but didn’t see it as a red flag: “It was just something he did.” When she heard Ben’s description of “things that were a bit dodgy”, she thought “they might find about 20 images. I was thinking he was looking at teenagers. Maybe 16-year-old girls.” He’d said, “I wasn’t searching for these things, I just went down a dark alley. Click, click, click.”
She recalls the police telling her they couldn’t reveal the full details of what Ben would be charged with until they were read out in court, and warned her that he might do something drastic in response to his arrest. “I felt they wanted me to keep quiet about what was happening, so he wouldn’t kill himself. And he was a risk, he was so ashamed. He was a professional, our children went to the local school.”
Within days, social services visited – for the only time – to assess the welfare of the children. They concluded that they hadn’t been abused and told Emma that Ben could have only supervised access to them. “Of course I was conflicted,” she says of the suggestion that he should be given access. “But I still didn’t have all the facts about what he’d done.”
She agreed to let her children see him a few hours a week as long as she was present throughout. “I didn’t want to stop him seeing them completely. He’s their dad, they love their dad.”
It was only when Ben went to court, months later, that she discovered the full extent of the allegations: “He had been looking at child abuse from when I was pregnant with our youngest child up until the day he was arrested. Years. It was in the most serious category, and he had viewed over 1,000 images.” The police told Emma to expect a prison sentence. But Ben, who pleaded guilty, received a suspended sentence and was placed on the sex offender register.
Before his case even came to court, Emma fled to a new town. Motivated by fear that her children would suffer if their friends and neighbours found out about what Ben had done, she moved to a place where she knew no one. “What if my children were bullied? Other mothers would wonder if their children had been safe in my home, and why I hadn’t known what he was doing,” she says.
But starting again has presented its own challenges. “I started off by saying I’d had a difficult divorce and wanted a fresh start. But when friendships deepened, I couldn’t explain why the kids could see their dad for only a few hours, or why I couldn’t leave them with him if I was invited on girly weekends. It got awkward.” Her life now, she says, is like “witness protection without the protection”.
Armitage’s research found that, of 150 family members who have been through the knock, about 69% have severe PTSD. The emotional fallout is often exacerbated by the isolation and lack of support that follows. “Their phones have been taken, so they are unable to contact anyone for help, and in just a few hours, for some, they have become a single parent,” Armitage says. “They are in total shock, but they are told not to talk about it.”
Some women find each other on internet forums, where they offer comfort and support under pseudonyms. One describes processing her partner’s arrest as like a bereavement without the body, grieving for the loss of a life they had before “this nightmare”. Another apologises for welcoming her to “a club no one wants to be in”. But for others, the internet becomes a place to fear. One woman told Armitage, “You are left reliant on finding your own information. It is such an uncertain time. I didn’t even dare go online to look for help.”
Another said: “My daughter was here at the time of the knock and that was horrendous. She was crying, she was making noises like a wounded animal. There were no pleasantries. The police just said, ‘Right, what devices have you got?’ That sort of thing. My daughter was being sick and there was no recognition of, ‘My God, this is so difficult for you.’”
DCI Michael Ford is a senior officer with South Wales police who has been involved in hundreds of child abuse arrests, from viewing uploaded images to trying to contact children online. “With their phones, people can access material that previously would have been difficult to find. You are only a few clicks away from the most abhorrent material,” he says. He has seen people from all walks of life: “Bus drivers, barristers, doctors, police officers. I’ve done hundreds of these arrests and they are extremely distressing.”
He says it is the ordinariness of the family that makes this process such a shock for partners. “Often, families have not had contact with the police before, so there is no belligerence. They are usually totally shocked. But mums cooperate immediately – they want to do what’s best for the kids. We do what we can to ensure distress is minimal, but you can see the impact is devastating.”
Where there are children, there are safeguarding issues. “They do see Dad taken away. We try to ensure social services see them as soon as possible.” And he tries to tell mothers what offences they are looking at: “You have to balance the privacy of the offender against the partner being aware of the risk he poses. If the person is looking at kids the same age as their own kids, the mother does need to know that.”
Ford has helped create a family pack with numbers mothers can call, from Samaritans to specialist groups such as Stop It Now. “It’s damage limitation. They are in such shock when we are there – they aren’t taking information in. We hope one day to have a pack especially for children. We talk about adverse childhood experiences – well, our arrival can trigger so many: incarceration of a parent, divorce, trauma, potentially a parent’s suicide. We are acutely aware of the devastation we are leaving behind.”
Darcey was at home with her children one Friday afternoon when she found out her older brother, Ed, had been arrested. Then she took a call from a social worker, who said: “Your brother has been arrested for looking at online child abuse and we are seeking assurance that your children will never see him again.” Darcey recalls, “They were that abrupt. I was so shocked that to this day I can’t remember if it was a man or a woman who spoke to me.”
The social worker asked if her brother had ever had unsupervised contact with her children. When she said he hadn’t, “that was it, it was a tick-box exercise in safeguarding. They didn’t point me to anything in terms of help or advice, absolutely nothing.” Darcey went to bed for three days. “My husband said, ‘It’s like you are grieving for your brother.’ It was as if I had lost him but worse. Every little memory I had of him was now tarnished.”
Ed had viewed images in all three categories, including young children being abused. “He was disgusted with himself – he said he had viewed too much extreme material and lost empathy. He felt deep loathing and shame.”
The siblings had been close their whole life. “He was such a sensitive child,” she says. But she no longer invites Ed into her home and he has not seen her children since his arrest. He has stopped drinking now and had counselling. Darcey believes he deserves a second chance, but acknowledges it will take a long time to rebuild the trust that has been broken.
Once a month, she supervises Ed’s contact with his young son. “I cried after the first visit. They only had one hour together, and my nephew started eating slowly just to get more time with his dad. One baked bean at a time.”
Years later, Darcey still feels the echoes of isolation, loss, betrayal, fear and stigma that followed her brother’s arrest. But there is also love, and with it a great sadness. She is scathing about social services. After his arrest, she says, “We had to ask to meet the social worker to make sure we were doing everything right, and we only met her once in two years. Nobody has ever checked that we were properly supervising his contact. I was making decisions about safeguarding with my heart, not with professional advice.”
For her, “the dilemma of not knowing what to do for the best” continues. Darcey asked social services for advice about what happens next, and whether she should still supervise visits with her nephew now Ed is no longer on the sex offender register, but she says there was “a lack of clear advice. They drop a bombshell, then walk away – they give you no support whatsoever.” The Department for Education, which oversees social care for children in England, says, “Nothing is more important than the safety of children. Local authorities have a duty to safeguard their welfare and should identify emerging problems and unmet needs to decide what early help services are required. Where existing support and interventions do not work, the local authority should act decisively to protect the child from abuse or neglect.”
One of the problems for families is assessing the risk these men pose to their own children. A scan through the hundreds of local news reports finds common mitigating pleas: depression and addiction to porn are the most commonly cited.
In 2019, only 20% of offenders convicted of accessing indecent images of children were given a custodial sentence – both Ben and Ed had been looking at child abuse for years but neither went to jail – and this low rate leaves men living in communities while families have to work out for themselves how to behave around them.
Armitage says women are being put in an invidious position. “A partner is asked to make this decision about future contact while experiencing trauma and under social and financial pressure because the man may lose his job and he has to move out. For many women it isn’t clearcut. For example, you may be told by your partner that there ‘might’ be ‘some’ images. Depending on the circumstances of the investigation, this may not be fully disclosed until court – which could be a year at the very least.
The women I have spoken with predominantly say that they feel guilt for even considering that they should be seeking support. They say the children being abused are the real victims and they don’t feel that their pain even deserves acknowledging.”
Deputy chief constable Ian Critchley has taken on the role of lead for child protection at the National Police Chiefs’ Council, speaking for forces across the country on the issue. He has decades of experience working on serious crime, including child exploitation and domestic violence. “We have seen the explosion of the internet which allows men to groom and exploit children, to commit horrendous criminal acts. At the end of this, at the heart of everything we do, there is a real child with a basic human right to thrive in society. I don’t see a distinction between abusing children and watching that abuse,” he says. “We are working hard with local authorities, with experts, to think about the care needed for children of offenders. But let’s be clear: the onus is on the dad, the trusted parent who commits this appalling crime.”
Emma, meanwhile, has thrown herself into campaigning to raise awareness of the lack of support for children like her own. Last month, she delivered a presentation to the police on how better safeguarding needs to be put in place when the knock happens, using her own experiences to bring to life the trauma that follows. She wants families to have an advocate within police or social services who can guide them through the court process and the difficult decisions about access.
She points to Operation Encompass, which supports children who experience domestic violence by connecting police to schools and early years service providers, as a model for handling these arrests.
“I think the fact that my children had a father on the sex offender register for several years, and no one in authority spoke to them or monitored them beyond one initial visit, is just staggering. My children were forgotten; the boxes relating to them were ticked immediately after the arrest.”
Her most serious concern is that a child will one day be abused by a father whose contact was not properly monitored. “Think about how widespread child abuse is; it is only a matter of time before a child is abused by a father on the sex offender register, and I don’t say that lightly.”
Her own children still see their father only under supervision. Now that they are older, Emma has begun to tell them what their dad has done. “I had to tell them not to tell anyone, I had to bring them into a circle of secrecy and shame. But the fact is, people they know will find out – and they will have a lifetime of dealing with the fallout.”
Some names and details have been changed.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.