Police chiefs today said they were “staggered” by soaring numbers of people using the internet to groom and abuse children.
Lancashire Police received a record 468 referrals for child sexual exploitation between January and March – more than five a day.
Of those, 107 were in the force’s South division, which reaches from Preston to Skelmersdale.
In 2014/15 there were a total of 292 referrals in the South division, up from 262 in 2012/13.
In the force’s West division, which includes the Fylde coast, Lancaster and Morecambe, there were a total of 564 referrals in 2014/15, compared to 305 in 2012/13.
Det Chief Supt Ian Critchley, the force’s head of crime, said: “I am staggered by the number of people we are identifying, both locally and nationally, who are viewing, sharing or grooming young people online.
I am staggered by the number of people we are identifying, both locally and nationally, who are viewing, sharing or grooming young people online.Det Chief Supt Ian Critchley
“It is a sad aspect of our society.”
Force bosses say the demand on its officers – particularly around safeguarding vulnerable people – has increased dramatically.
Sexual offences against children have gone up by 20 per cent since 2012, and child sexual exploitation referrals are up by a quarter.
At the same time, officers are managing around 1,700 sexual and violent offenders living in the county.
Det Chief Supt Critchley said child abuse has a “devastating” impact not just on the victim and their family but also on the relatives of offenders.
He added: “The impact on a child can last a life-time. The human cost is staggering.
“Almost every single day in Lancashire we are going out with a warrant to arrest and search suspected offenders for online offences.
“What we want is to eradicate it, educate and work with young people to reduce vulnerability.”
Det Chief Supt Critchley said he was “proud” of the work being done to tackle the record number of cases being referred to police, after bosses spent £1m to help tackle online abuse.
It follows a report from police watchdog HM Inspectorate of Constabulary that found forces around the country need to do more to keep children safe.
But while the HMIC report, published yesterday, highlights fears over the impact of reduced staff number in Lancashire, as Government cuts have seen the force lose more than 700 officers since 2010, bosses say child protection remains a “key priority”.
Lancashire’s Police and Crime Commissioner Clive Grunshaw said: “We are committed to rooting (abuse) out and stopping it from happening. We need to ensure we have got the resources in place. It is about building confidence in the public. To make sure we do not have a backlog of cases we have taken £1m out of the reserves.”
The money has helped extra staff and equipment to tackle the surge in demand.