Police and care workers are calling on the public to raise concerns if they suspect a child is at risk of sexual exploitation.Tonight Fiona Finch reports on a new initiative to protect county youngsters.
It is a subject many people do not want to think about, talk about or accept is happening.
But this week a major campaign is asking you not to look the other way.
Lancashire’s Child Sexual Exploitation Awareness Week seeks to raise awareness of a tragedy that could be happening near where you live, where you work or to a young person you know.
Referrals to police about suspected child sexual exploitation (CSE) have risen by 20 per cent in Lancashire in the last two years with 1814 reports of suspected cases in 2016/17.
It is known such exploitation can take many forms. From trafficking or exploitation within families, to online abuse and luring, even the most savvy youngster can be at risk. Those seeking to exploit young people can be crafty, calculating, patient and clever.
Now, for the sake of all our children, major agencies including Lancashire Constabulary, the Police and Crime Commissioner Clive Grunshaw and Lancashire’s Safeguarding Children Board are appealing to both public and professionals to get more clued up about the dangers, the help available and where to go to report any suspicions.
Today, 200 experts gather for a special multi agency conference in Blackpool. Its theme is Prevention Through Education and it has been organised by Lancashire Constabulary for those working with children and with CSE victims.
Detective Superintendant Ian Whitehead, the Constabulary’s Head of Public Protection and Deputy Chair of Lancashire Safeguarding Children Board, is the conference facilitator.
It is acknowledged that in Lancashire the unsolved case of teenager Charlene Downes, who went missing in 2003 in Blackpool, was a wake-up call alerting police to the need for more and wider awareness of child sexual exploitation.
DS Whitehead said: “We are seeing year on year increases in referrals and crimes and I think that’s probably due to higher raising of awareness.”
He continued: “This week is all about raising awareness of the different agencies that are working to prevent child abuse, helping victims and bringing offenders to justice. We are giving people the confidence and understanding there’s support out there if they want to report (suspected cases) .We would rather investigate than not uncover what could be harm to a child.”
The messages learned at the conference will be applied county-wide. DS Whitehead said: “ It’s important to recognise that CSE isn’t something that’s bespoke to any geographical area. It’s present in all the areas we police.
“We’re talking about it starting, for example, with people receiving gifts, drugs, affection and then subsequently that turning into coercing them to perform sexual activities. It can involve children groomed on line and encouraged to post sexual images online and turn into being blackmailed. At the extreme it can involve serious sexual offences against children.”
Older teenagers may regard themselves as consenting young adults, but they can also be exploited.
He said: “They may see themselves as willing participants, it’s about us helping them to recognise their own vulnerabilities.”
Meanwhile yesterday in East Lancashire the county's Police and Crime Commissione Clive Grunshaw welcomed teachers, health and care workers to a conference to unveil a new toolkit on topics ranging from grooming and sexting to consent and healthy relationships. The kit aims to help prevent youngsters making “dangerous choices”.
Those working with young people can sign up and access it through the Commissioner’s dedicated online Nest Lancashire service .
Mr Grunshaw said: “This is not just a police issue. This is one of the most pressing issues for all of us. The horror for the individuals concerned can be massive. It can have a devastating impact and it can stay with them for life.”
“The risks are probably now greater than they have ever been.
“The accessibility of the internet and social media means that the young can be exploited in a way they’ve never been before.”
He continued: “In grooming, for example, 90 per cent of these cases involve some online element, showing just how prevalent the internet and smartphones are in cases.
“We’ve also seen in the last two years a 20 per cent rise in referrals and I think a lot of that is linked to the internet, but it’s also about raising awareness.
“These resources will help young people to understand some of the risks they may be taking by sharing images, personal information or through peer pressure.”
Jane Booth, chair of the Lancashire Safeguarding Children Board, also added her voice to the calls for increased public awareness of possible exploitation, stressing that: “If you see something that doesn’t look right it probably isn’t right.”
WHO TO CONTACT
If you have concerns about CSE contact:
• Police on 101 or 999 in emergencies
• Children’s Social Care on 0300 123 6720
• NEST Victims Service on 0300 111 0323
l Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111
Schools and professionals working with children can request access to the new toolkit at www.nest
See also Lancashire Constabulary site: www.trusted2know.co.uk
NEST Lancashire's site www.nestlancashire.org is a support service for young people (aged 10-18) who are victims or witnesses of crimes.