Child sex abuse a prolific problem in South-east Asia, says US special agent

Police in Singapore have investigated more than 120 cases involving child sexual abuse materials since January 2020.

Samuel Devaraj

Samuel Devaraj

The Straits Times


The Singapore police have investigated more than 120 cases involving child sexual abuse materials since January 2020. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PIXABAY/THE STRAITS TIMES

August 7, 2023

SINGAPORE – Information filtered through to a tip line in the United States that there were two children in Singapore who were potential victims of sexual abuse by perpetrators based overseas.

After Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the principal investigative arm of the US Department of Homeland Security, got that information, it was passed to the Singapore police on June 8, 2022.

The same day, officers located the children – two siblings – and it was assessed that they were no longer in any harm at that point.

Advice was provided to the children and their family on how to ensure their safety, the police told The Straits Times.

“This case highlights the importance of international collaboration between law enforcement agencies in the identification and protection of child abuse victims,” they added.

In an interview at the US embassy here in July, special agent Dawn Barriteau from HSI said that following investigations in Singapore, the US and Canada, a perpetrator was arrested in the Canadian capital Ottawa and another in the US state of Texas.

She added that it was found that the parents of the victims had no clue that their children were being exploited, but declined to give further information on the case.

Ms Barriteau is a regional attache with HSI, which comes under the US’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and probes transnational crime and threats. She is based in Singapore and responsible for the oversight of the HSI field offices in Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and the Republic.

She also has operational responsibilities in Brunei and Timor-Leste.

Among the crimes her team deals with are sexual offences involving children.

“In the region, it is definitely a prolific problem,” said Ms Barriteau, adding that HSI has worked very closely with the Singapore police on this issue.

Her team passes to the police here information on potential illicit content involving children related to Singapore that is sent through a cyber tip line from American non-profit organisation the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.

The centre received 29.3 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation in 2021 – a 35 per cent increase from 2020.

There were 32 million such reports in 2022, of which 89.9 per cent were traced to locations outside the US.

“That really shows us that it’s a global problem, and that if we are not working together with our foreign counterparts, these perpetrators will go untouched,” said Ms Barriteau.

ST reported in June that the police here have investigated more than 120 cases involving child sexual abuse materials since January 2020, when laws were introduced to criminalise the production, distribution, advertising and possession of such materials.

A prominent recent case was that of Ansari Abdul Amin, whom the prosecution described as having an insatiable appetite for child pornography.

The 36-year-old viewed sexual videos involving babies, girls and boys below 11 years old having sex with adults. He also traded such material with unknown users on Telegram, who publicly offered their collection of child pornography.

He was jailed for two years in March for downloading more than 13,600 files of child abuse material.

To fight child sexual abuse and exploitation in South-east Asia, the Crimes Against Children Regional Forum 2023 – organised by the Singapore police and HSI – was held here in July.

About 150 representatives, including subject-matter experts, investigators and non-governmental organisation members from Singapore, the US and nine other South-east Asian countries, attended. The forum covered topics such as effective online investigations and victim-centred interviewing techniques.

Ms Barriteau, who attended the event, said it was a fantastic opportunity to share best practices.

She added: “When you’re working these investigations, and we have the opportunity to rescue a child from a perpetrator, we need to act swiftly. And in law enforcement, it’s all about our relationships.

“And so, having the opportunity to meet police and other law enforcement agencies from the region gives us that point of contact to act swiftly.”

While managing people who handle child sex abuse cases, Ms Barriteau is also bringing up a 15-year-old daughter in Singapore.

While the teenager is allowed to use social media, she cannot post anything.

“We talk about it daily, and I talk to her about the risks. There are many risks online and you have to be safe. But we can’t get away from it because our children are using laptops for school,” said Ms Barriteau.

“Everything is on the computer, so I can’t stop her from being on it, and I can’t manage that every day. But I have these conversations with her. I tell her people harm children, people do terrible things.

“There’s all these things, so you have to be smart. But it’s constant conversations all the time at the dinner table… Because, ultimately, it’s just one click away from a child becoming a victim.”

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