There has been a worrying drop in the number of people facing conviction for child abuse offences in Staffordshire.
Of the 77 prosecutions for offences related to making, distributing, or possessing indecent images of children that took place across courts in Staffordshire in 2020, just 40 resulted in a conviction - 52 per cent.
Exclusive analysis of Crown Prosecution Service figures by StaffordshireLive has revealed that the conviction rate was at a five-year low, having fallen from 55 per cent in 2019 and 57 per cent in 2018.
At the same time, the number of prosecutions taking place has fallen slightly, having dropped from 80 cases taken to court in 2019 and 79 in 2018.
Barnardo’s chief executive Javed Khan said: "It is extremely worrying that the number of convictions for indecent images of children is decreasing.
"This does not mean that less child abuse is taking place - it just means that more children are slipping through the net and more perpetrators are being allowed to walk free and continue their crimes.
"Behind every image is a child that has been abused and needs support to recover from this horrific trauma. We urgently need to close the widening gap between the true scale of abuse and the information and data recorded by agencies.
"This information is essential so that we can allocate resources effectively and keep children safe from harm.
"Giving evidence is also extremely traumatic for children, especially against perpetrators of abuse.
"End-to-end encryption on messaging apps and platforms can hamper efforts to stop abuse, by preventing evidence against offenders from being gathered directly and placing the onus on children to disclose and testify."
As figures on the number of child abuse image cases being reported to Staffordshire Police are unavailable, it is unclear whether or not the drop in prosecutions reflects a drop in these crimes.
Separate figures show the total number of sexual offences being committed against children are also falling, but experts warn this does not mean fewer cases of child sexual abuse are happening - just that more children are slipping through the net, leaving perpetrators free to continue their crimes.
Last year, Staffordshire Police recorded 1,086 sexual offences against children, down from 1,246 crimes in 2019, and 1,427 in 2018. The 77 prosecutions recorded in 2020 most commonly involved white men aged between 30 and 39 - a total of 22 cases.
None of the prosecutions in 2020 involved women. However, in three cases the gender of the defendant was not known. Overall, 11 women have been prosecuted in Staffordshire for images of child abuse in the last decade, compared to 1,008 men. Four prosecutions that took place in 2020 involved young men aged between 18 and 20; and six involved men aged 70 or over.
Where the ethnicity of the defendant was recorded, most cases involved white men (43), while two involved black men and two Asian men. Meanwhile, of the 40 convictions recorded last year, six resulted in jail time, with sentences ranging from between two months to up to two years. Three of the sentences were suspended, while 10 received a community sentence.
The national picture of child abuse
Nationally, there were 4,762 prosecutions relating to child abuse images across England and Wales in 2020, with 2,385 ending in a conviction, or 50 per cent.
That was down from 52 per cent in both 2019 and 2018, and the lowest figure recorded since 2015.
The number of prosecutions seen nationally have remained at similar levels in recent years - with 4,762 recorded in 2020, compared to 4,783 in 2019 and 4,785 in 2018.
However, police forces across England and Wales have been recording fewer sexual offences against children, with 51,432 such crimes recorded in 2020 - down from 55,763 in 2019 and 57,004 in 2018.
In terms of outcomes, 424 convictions resulted in immediate custody, with jail time ranging from just a month to between 10 and 15 years.
Meanwhile, nine ended with a fine, 412 were suspended and in 378 resulted in community orders.
Mr Khan said: "We must prioritise understanding how end-to-end encryption impacts the police's ability to build a case to prosecute child abuse.
"Barnardo's has also long called for strict sanctions for tech companies that fail to keep children safe and we know directly from our services that many children abused online will also go on to be abused offline.
"The new draft Online Safety legislation must ensure that tech companies design software that has safety at its very core to protect children from offenders taking advantage of technology to perpetrate sexual abuse.
"However, this legislation will take time to implement and children need protection now. We urge tech companies to show leadership in making their platform safe.
"Working with charities like Barnardo’s and local agencies, the Government needs to ensure all victims can access vital support and that professionals have sufficient training and resources to bring perpetrators to justice."