Caroline Engvall, the voice of children who have been exposed to online sexual abuse

[ 0 ] 23/02/2019 |

Caroline Engvall, mum of three, is a journalist, lecturer and best-selling author who has written several crime novels in Swedish dealing with the very difficult and poignant topics of children’s sex trade, domestic and international trafficking. Caroline makes a real difference in the fight against children’s sexual abuse. She runs several projects that help children who are exposed to online crimes, including the publication of educational materials, help websites, podcasts and television documentaries. Caroline is the 2018 winner of the Elise Lindqvist award and she has won the title “Brave Mama” (Mama magazine).

Caroline has initiated conversations with members of the Swedish government and she has been engaged by the Swedish royalty, Queen Silvia and Princess Sofia, to talk about the subject both privately and for the Childhood Foundation. Thanks to her work, there have been lots of changes in Sweden, both in attitudes towards the vulnerable, but also with law changes, penalties, support and treatment for the victims.

Caroline’s new book ‘Dockleken‘ will be released in Swedish on 25 April. We’re also eagerly expecting her books to be published in English in the near future.

Interview with Caroline Engvall

How did you get started with writing books on the subject?

I wrote my first book ”14 år till salu” (14 years for sale) ten years ago. It is the story of Tessan, who after she had been sexually abused, she started using sex to suppress her anxiety. I got in touch with many children and young people who were exposed to sexual abuse and had exposed themselves online. I had the privilege of becoming a spokesperson, their voice, with the opportunity to influence politicians and the public in general. But above all, the driving force behind all my writing, is to show young people that they are not alone and that there is help readily available to them.

You have written several books on the theme of children’s sexual exploitation. Why did you decide to deal with these issues in the form of crime fiction?

Before my crime novels, I had written several novels and report books on children being caught in the Swedish sex trade and how vulnerable children can be online. Thanks to my meetings with vulnerable young people and perpetrators, I have had the opportunity to look into a world that not so many adults have access to. In the crime scene, I dress this knowledge in an exciting criminal suit – and the main stories are about the escalating sex trade with children online. My book ”Judasvaggan” (The Judas Cradle) is about perpetrators throughout the world, also in Sweden, who can and do order children to be readily available to be abused, located in different parts of the world.

Your books depict poignant, true stories about young people who use sex as self-harm behavior, children who sell sex and who are sold by others – so-called domestic trafficking – and children’s vulnerability on the net. Can you tell us a bit more about the process, how do you conduct your research?

I wrote my first book, 14 years for sale, just over ten years ago. It became a best-seller. This book has been followed by several others, where I looked into a dark world that touched on the sex trade of children in Sweden. I interviewed police, social services and prosecutors. I traveled all across the country to sit on trials and meet vulnerable children and young people. Taking their important stories further into the world of deeds was necessary, but difficult. The world of the vulnerable is not fiction. It happens here and now, for real. How would I best manage their trust, convince readers that the darts puzzle is really real?

Those thoughts meant that for a long time I refused to write about crime, even though something deep inside me made itself more and more loud. The voice turned out to belong to my journalistic side, the one who longs to reveal and show the reality in a white fluorescent light. Suddenly, it seemed obvious to let a abuse network of senior Swedish men that I followed remotely for many years, take the place of the act. Many are the girls who have come their way. That was enticed by confirmation and promises of violence. As of self-harm, they were drawn to people with knowledge and willingness to harm them more than they could.

To be able to write a credible crime story about that sex network, I needed to get them to life. Creating relationships, infiltrating and lying – just like my protagonist, the journalist Lovisa Ling, does in my book “Scars we carry.” The men with stars on the uniforms, leather gloves and cold eyes are not innocent and can be prepared to go far to protect themselves and what they’ve built. This involved a number of precautionary measures from my end but also an unexpectedly simple “road in”. The desire to utilize a willing and self-damaging teenager attracted several of the men from the network and I followed closely their activities.

The result was the book I just mentioned, the “Scars we carry”. The release of this book resulted in news reports and newspaper interviews about the huge demand for children’s bodies, about the confirmed via confirmatory tests abuse of young people. A debate on changing my country’s existing legislation followed next. For me personally, all this time spent inside a pitch black world in the company of some of the country’s most dangerous men, was clearly worth all the risks of my research.

How can we talk to our children about online safety? Where can we start and at what age?

We can start by talking about the body, integrity and boundaries already during the preschool age – or as early as possible. Save the Children “Stopp! Min kropp!” is a material I recommend as a starting point to Swedish speakers, where a guardian can also record good and bad secrets with their young children.

Also, we can talk to them about the internet even when they are very small, and we can discuss both about the good things and about the risks involved.

When it comes to children in preschool age, it is a good idea to be involved in the child’s internet habits, and preferably start by looking and exploring things together. When children start reading and writing on their own, they are often more active online users and can browse on their own. The older the child becomes, the greater the need for the child’s integrity even with regard to what is happening online.

I advise parents to get interested in what their children do online; which games they play and what they like to do online. These can be great conversation starters both about things that happen and make them feel good and things that make them feel not so good. Ask the children to show you. Let them be the experts and you an ignorant but curious adult. Younger children need to learn that there are people online who hide behind false identities and that one should be cautious about sending pictures or disclosing detailed information such as their name and address to unknown people over the internet.

It is also important to help children understand that they must tell an adult and ask for help if there is something that does not feel good in one’s network contacts, even if someone has threatened or told someone not to tell. A good way to address this topic, as an example, is when issues concerning sexual vulnerability on the Internet are highlighted in the media. One can ask the child if he/she has heard of the event, what has he/she thinking about it, how does he/she react when someone unknown contacts him/her, how should he/she answer when questions received by someone online make the child experience negative and uncomfortable emotions. By picking up the discussion on the basis of examples that you have heard from newspapers or friends, you signal that you know that this exists and in this way facilitate the child to tell if something does not feel good.

How can we ensure as parents that our children are safe online? What steps should we take?

We can start by what makes us feel worried. Does the child seem to have changed, for example, is he/she withdrawn from friends, has become more aggressive or in any other ways signal that they are not well? Show them that you are interested in understanding what is your child going through. Changes in mood or behavior can be due to many different things.

Have you ever come across parents who knew their child was abused but didn’t do anything about it? And how can the child seek help and healing in such cases?

Way too often. To get the question at all – and to ask concrete – is important for the vulnerable children. Sometimes parents whose child has been exposed online do not consider the spread of images on the web as a big issue. It is of paramount importance for the child that a parent asks the question. It shows that the parent is an adult who wants to understand and cares about him/her. If such a thing happens to your family, you should find the time and have the interest to take advantage of the answer you have received and act on it.

It is a training issue to be able to talk to young people in a respectful manner. Try to be so curious that you almost crack, for real, so that it doesn’t seem to fake. Also don’t be afraid to say, “What you tell me now is hard to take in, I notice that I am worried.” Share concern without saying “let it be there, now I shall report what happens”. Creating and maintaining a strong relationship is incredibly important.

Even if you as an adult do not have as much experience in the children’s world on the internet, it is important that you interest yourself and show that you care by asking questions. In order to gain a basic knowledge of different sites and functions, you can also ask other adults who may be better off than you are. One tip is also to go to popular sites and see how they work. For individual conversations with children and young people, openly asked questions about internet use can lead to more sensitive issues. Just be careful not to be condemning and moralizing. Ask for your interest and care.

Examples of questions can be “Which pages do you usually visit?”, “Do you have friends on the internet? How do you usually get in touch? ”,“ Did you get to know someone via the internet that you didn’t know before? ”,“ Do you put pictures of yourself on the web? ”,“ Have you posted pictures on someone else? ”, “Has anyone else posted pictures of you? In what context? How did it feel? ”,“ Many people are involved in unpleasant things on the internet, such as, for example, someone sending strange pictures, writing about sexual things or doing something else that has not felt good. Have you been through it?”.

What parents should do if they find out their child has been abused?

Time and confidence are keywords. Put away your prejudices and try to understand the underlying causes. We all wish the best for our children but it is impossible to guarantee that nothing bad will ever happen to them. The most important thing is that children know they can talk to their parents or someone else they trust if something unpleasant happens. By starting early talking to our children about feelings, thoughts and relationships, a time when less dramatic things have happened in life, we train both ourselves and the child in having an open communication even when things get difficult.

Help the child think about how to protect themselves now from what has already been. Help to find strategies and ways out when you are in that situation. Such strategies may be that you start to set small limits for yourself, for example, that you do not go online every day. Instead, you decide to do something else, something good that you liked to do before.

What developments do you see ahead in this field? Does the future look positive?

Many. The interest in Sweden is enormous and more and more people are beginning to understand the extent of the problem. The topic is now at a very high level, both in the Riksdag, the national legislature and the supreme decision-making body of Sweden, the government and in the Swedish royal house. I really feel that I can influence people.

If you could know the absolute and total truth to one question, what question would you ask?

What happens after death?

What do you think about when you’re alone in your car / motorbike?

All my new projects. Right now Safe Selfie Academy, a training initiative for students in Sweden, and my own writing courses that start this summer.

Caroline before becoming a mother, and after. In what ways did parenthood change you?

Although I now know what can happen to children online, at the same time I give my own children much freedom there. Through constant conversations and building trust, I hope they will tell me if something happens, without me violating their integrity.

What is your vision? Where do you see yourself in 5, 10 years from now?

Hopefully in the same place, but with even more people having had the chance to get access to the knowledge. I believe in the power of being able to change things. During these ten years that I have been writing and lecturing on the subject of sex as anxiety suppression and the children being caught in the Swedish sex trafficking, there have been lots of changes, both in attitudes towards the vulnerable, but also with law changes, penalties, support and treatment for the victims. I choose to focus on the fight forward. But I also use tough training as a brain cleaner, like Thai boxing/Muay Thai (I live and work in Thailand six months per year), Bulgarian bags (I am a certified instructor), as well as functional training and Yin Yoga.

Contact Details
Facebook: Caroline Engvall Writer
Safe Selfie Talks
Instagram: @engvallcaroline and @bloodysoulfulwriting

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Category: Interviews

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