A CHILD whose life was turned upside down by an online sex offender has said spoken of her dismay at the justice system after the man who targeted her was released on appeal.

The Darlington girl, now 16, was groomed over internet chat apps by Joe Williams from the age of just 11, when she was particularly vulnerable and going through a difficult time.

The 22-year-old was handed a 12-month jail sentence in March this year after admitting one charge, of causing a minor to watch a sexual act, but last week appeal court judges reduced it to a suspended sentence, saying the girl "agreed to be his online girlfriend" – comments which angered charities this week, who said children cannot consent to sexual activity.

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Williams, of Penryn Close, Darlington, was initially charged with other offences as part of a lengthy campaign of grooming he carried out on the girl when she was 11 or 12 and he was 18, but the prosecution pursued the one charge he admitted, so the girl did not have to be put through the ordeal of being cross-examined in court.

Her mother said: "The legal deal has backfired. The sentence was going to be the same for one crime as it was for a number of offences so we didn't see the point of pursuing them. If we'd known that would prevent the appeal court judges from looking at the full picture we would have thought differently."

The girl, who cannot be named for legal reasons, has suffered mental health problems and has self-harmed and even attempted suicide since the crime took place.

She said: "I feel like no one believes me after reading what the judge said. I knew it was wrong, but when I was 12 I really believed that he loved me and I didn't have very much in my life at that time and he knew that.

"One day I was having a particularly bad time and that was the day he asked me to send him a picture of myself in my school uniform. I knew it was wrong, but I really thought I loved him. I was so worried for ages after I sent that because he knew what school I went to.

"I started self-harming at that time and the cycle has never really stopped since then. I didn't think I was worth anything unless I was getting sexual attention."

The girl said she was always truthful about her age with Williams and initially thought he was a friend because he listened to her problems.

But with time he showered her with compliments and started to persuade her to send more and more revealing pictures of herself – and she said she was so young and naive she didn't even understand some of the things he was asking her to do.

Her mother had been monitoring her daughter's social media accounts, but had not realised that one had a private messaging function, when the grooming began.

Charity the Survivors Trust said the comments of Appeal Court judge Lord Justice Hamblen showed a "shocking lack of awareness" and said "a child has no legal capacity to make any decisions around consent".

The girl took the brave decision to read out her own victim impact statement in the original court case, deciding not to have screens up so she had to face Williams. The judge who jailed him said Williams' behaviour had a traumatic effect on his young victim.

But his lawyers challenged the sentence, citing his remorse, youth, "naivety" and problems with ADHD.

Lord Justice Hamlin, transferring the jail sentence to a suspended term last week, said: "Although the victim's personal statement detailed the impact this contact had on her, it was not specifically linked to the single picture sent."