A LEADING light in the battle against child sexual exploitation has announced she is stepping down from her role.

Wendy Shepherd has headed Barnardo’s SECOS (Sexual Exploitation Children’s Outreach Service) since its inception more than 20 years ago.

She has devoted her career to helping those at risk of exploitation and their families, supporting hundreds while raising awareness of the issues at the heart of child sexual exploitation.

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With the management structure of the Middlesbrough-based project set to merge with Barnardo’s Bridgeway project - which also supports families and individuals affected by sexual abuse - Ms Shepherd decided it was time to step down.

She said: “I’ve been privileged to meet a lot of young people who have shaped my thinking and I’ve met brilliant people who will take this work forward.

“I’ve loved working for Barnardo’s and had a fabulous team of dedicated people and partnerships that I cannot thank enough.

“I’m really grateful to them and the young people who put their trust in us and allowed us to work with them and their families.”

Director Steve Oversby of Barnardo’s East Region paid tribute to Ms Shepherd as a ‘leading light’, saying: “Wendy has been a key part of Barnado’s for 24 years.

“During this time she has been a leading light in the way CSE is seen and confronted, in the Tees area and nationally.

“When she started, the subject of CSE was often not recognised as an issue, its very existence was sometimes not acknowledged - Wendy’s work with Barnardo’s has helped to change this.

“As a result, we can see perpetrators of this terrible crime brought to justice and young people properly supported to change their lives and break cycles of abuse.

“Young people and families have always been at the heart of her practice and it is in the hundreds of young people’s lives that have been improved because of her commitment that her legacy lies.”