Wendy Shepherd has devoted her career to tackling the sexual exploitation of children. About to step down from leading Middlesbrough’s Sexual Exploitation Children’s Outreach Service (SECOS) project, the Barnardo’s worker tells Joanna Morris there’s work still to be done

WITH internet predators, exploitation, grooming, a sexting epidemic, teens aping 50 Shades of Grey by restraining each other with gaffer tape and a proliferation of porn, the children of 2016 are being shaped – and sometimes exploited - in an increasingly sexualised society.

The significant challenges facing those battling child sexual exploitation are numerous and few know them as well as former social worker and psychotherapist Wendy Shepherd.

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Ms Shepherd has helped hundreds of youngsters and their families in her role with SECOS, established after 1998 research found the average age of children being sexually exploited in Middlesbrough was between 12 and 13.

The project, coupled with strong partnerships between services and authorities in the area, has succeeded in reducing the number of women selling themselves on the streets of Middlesbrough.

Since it was established, Ms Shepherd estimates, the number has dropped from around 600 women to between 40 and 60.

She believes the reduction is linked to efforts helping youngsters at risk from sexual exploitation – many of whom may otherwise have gone on to work in the adult sex industry.

She said: “SECOS was set up after we saw children involved in what we then called child prostitution and now know to be exploitation.

“Over sixty per cent of women on the streets had been exploited as kids, had suffered sexual abuse or neglect.

“Our biggest achievement since then is that we are protecting children so much more than we did.

“We identified this is an issue for children and are doing something about it rather than burying our heads and thinking this is an unpalatable situation that we shouldn’t talk about.

“We have exposed what happens and worked incessantly to make sure young people are protected and we’re seeing the benefits of that.”

However, Ms Shepherd is firm in her belief that the fight to protect children is far from over, with the digital age presenting a host of new challenges.

She has called for a number of measures to be implemented, from mandatory sex and relationship education in schools to forcing internet providers to better protect children from sexual content online.

Ms Shepherd also wants young people and their families to be better educated about consent and alert to the dangers of the internet.

“We expect parents to teach and do things they don’t understand themselves,” she says.

“We need to get to grips with education and make sure children know about healthy relationships and we need to ensure sexual bullying and sexting are being robustly dealt with – it’s an epidemic.

“Children have access to social media sites suffused with sexual content, to the music industry and the gaming industry where people kill prostitutes on Grand Theft Auto.

“Their brains are developing and they don’t know what good sex is – after 50 Shades of Grey, we had lads with gaffer tape saying they wanted to tie girls up and put rope around their necks.

“What they choose to do consensually is one thing but there’s a lack of understanding around saying yes or no and having the confidence to do so in the face of constant messages telling them they must look and behave like this that.”

The internet has also become an easy way for those who seek to exploit and abuse children to access their victims.

“It makes it easier for them to access kids in a way we’ve never had before – we have those with an interest in children looking to create relationships based on exploitation.

“These people are very good at making relationships and highly attuned to spotting vulnerable children.

“They’re feeding children into an awful, abusive life and we need to get them off that path and show them a different way where they do not have to be victimised and put in an awful position.”

The key to helping at risk youngsters is understanding their vulnerabilities and offering them a new path, says Ms Shepherd.

“You have to believe in them to get them to believe in themselves – children will always know if you care about them and if you’re not interested in them, then you should not be in this profession.

“Young people need the opportunity to have an education, skills, love, to develop self-esteem and to know they can have more.

She added: “In my career, I’ve been privileged to meet a lot of young people who have shaped my thinking and I’ve met brilliant people who are going to 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.”

After she steps down from her role, Ms Shepherd will continue to work as a consultant focusing on national and international issues around child sexual exploitation.