Sex offenders who target children via cellphones and social media face tough penalties under new legislation that goes to the Legislative Assembly next month.

Planned amendments to the Penal Code seek to create a host of new offenses that specifically deal with the grooming of children.

If the bill is passed, it will be a criminal offense for any adult to engage in “sexual communication” with a child.

Police have welcomed the planned legislation, saying it will provide them with new tools to target child groomers, who use technology like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger to prey on young children. Kevin Ashworth, manager of the RCIPS Family Support Unit, said anyone sending sexual texts or requests for explicit pictures from children could be charged under the new legislation.

Currently, officers use other offenses where appropriate, such as the charge of misuse of an ICT network to cause harassment, alarm or distress, to prosecute child groomers. Inspector Ashworth said the proposed legislation would make it much easier for police and prosecutors to tackle offenders.

“The word ‘grooming’ is an internationally recognized term and we have seen evidence of it in several recent local cases, but it is not something that has been exclusively covered by legislation until now,” he said.

“We see this legislation as a very positive reaction to public feeling and to the requirements of law enforcement. It gives us the tools to be able to do our job effectively.”

He said the offense of “sexual communication” did not just cover online or text communication, but could allow police to investigate patterns of suspicious behavior and potentially intervene before more serious offenses were committed.

He highlighted the case of Errington Webster, a political candidate who was convicted of three counts of indecent assaults and one count of gross indecency on a 13-year-old girl, as a prime example of grooming. Mr. Webster cultivated a friendship with the girl and her family, taking her, for example, on trips to Burger King and showering her with gifts over a period of time, before sexually assaulting and engaging in a grossly indecent act in her presence.

“There are patterns of behavior that are not illegal per se, but along with text messages and other evidence, we can build a bigger picture,” said Inspector Ashworth.

He said the law would help officers intervene to protect children earlier in the process.

He added that police needed parents, teachers and other responsible adults to be vigilant and report suspicious behavior or communications to police in order for the law to be effective.

The bill, which is expected to be debated at the next Legislative Assembly session, which will be held on Cayman Brac, creates eight new offenses, including sexual communication with a child, arranging to meet a child for sexual purposes, attempting to “procure a child for sexual activity,” causing a child to watch sexual activity and inviting a child to engage in sexual activity.

The new offenses carry penalties ranging from four to 12 years in prison, depending on severity, and are magnified if the perpetrator is in a “position of trust.”

The same bill also seeks to amend the Penal Code to allow the courts to impose “sexual harm protection orders” retrospectively.

The orders, introduced last year, allow for a set of specific restrictions to be placed on the freedom of sex offenders once they are released from custody. These can include bans on working with children or going near certain locations, including schools.

The amendment, allowing them to be applied retroactively, will mean they can be applied to people who were sentenced before the orders were introduced into law.

“It means we can apply them to offenders that are being released from prison in the near future once the law is enacted,” said Inspector Ashworth.

All suspicions of child sexual abuse, physical and emotional abuse or neglect should be reported immediately to the Cayman Islands’ Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub at [email protected], or 911 in emergency situations.

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