x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Hotline helps to net child abusers

Police and experts agree that an anonymous hotline to report sex abuse will help increase the number of cases brought to authorities.

DUBAI // The promise of anonymity to those who call a new police hotline to report cases of child sex abuse is fighting the stigma of such crimes and encouraging more victims to come forward.

Since Dubai Police activated the 24-hour hotline in June it has led to 10 investigations, from which five cases were referred to prosecutors.

The victims ranged in age from 5 to 14, mostly boys. The callers were either parents or people who had noticed suspicious behaviour.

"The confidentiality of the hotline has helped break the public's fear of reporting such incidents. They feel safe, and this helps them come forward, and thus we are able to crack down on such crimes," said Maj Majed Al Suwaidi, the hotline supervisor.

"The cases coming through are completely confidential, and police do not keep a record of them to guarantee their confidentiality. Cases are directly transferred to the public prosecution after investigation," said Brig Khalil Al Mansouri, head of the Criminal Investigation Department.

Sexual predators are "not widespread and are not originally part of our society, but have invaded us. But we still need to deal with them so we continuously develop methods to combat them", he said.

After a call to the hotline, officers from a child-abuse investigation unit are assigned to the case. The unit, set up in January, comprises 13 staff, of whom five are women.

If the caller reports abuse that has just happened, the unit immediately carries out a forensic examination. Most of the cases referred to public prosecution have been attempted sexual assault. Police did not say at what point the case and records were destroyed.

In some cases, police said, callers had reported abuse outside their jurisdiction. For instance, a father in Sharjah called to report that he suspected his 10-year-old daughter was being molested by her music teacher.

"Initially the girl had kept quiet about it, but at a later stage she told her dad, who reported it to us," Maj Al Suwaidi said. "We looked into the case, although the incident occurred in Sharjah, but we had to refer it to Sharjah police."

The teacher, in his late 30s, confessed to the abuse, Maj Al Suwaidi said.

Those investigated ranged from people the children did not know to those who were part of their daily environment, such as watchmen.

"Some people call in to let us know they suspect that a person is intending to harm a child," Maj Al Suwaidi said. "We immediately deploy a patrol to the place and arrest the person. These type of reports are important for us, as we want to prevent these crimes before they happen.

"Sometimes it is not difficult to identify a person who is intending to abuse a child. He would be seen to take a child in a narrow alley or between two buildings and start to hold the child's hand. If this occurs, one should report it."

Dr Soad Al Oraimi, professor of sociology at United Arab Emirates University, said reporting such crimes was sensitive and complex. "The issue is not a lack of awareness among the public," she said. "On the contrary, people know that sexual abuse is a crime, they know their rights and they also know that, if reported, the perpetrator will be penalised.

"But they do not wish to report it because of the stigma attached to it. There is a sense of disgrace attached to this kind of crime."

Dr Al Oraimi said the line's confidentiality would encourage people to come forward, but it should be better publicised and include different organisations.

"Others, such as social workers and social organisations, should be involved in this, as many people do not like going to police and would feel more at ease talking to other social groups," she said.

Afra Al Basti, executive director of the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, said: "It would have been more effective if there was a unified helpline where all concerned parties would be involved in the cases.

"The problem is that each party wants to do their own thing. This causes confusion among the public, as they no longer know who to go to."

The hotline number is 04 266 1228