Child sexual exploitation is a major child protection issue across the UK. The Northern Echo sets out to make sure it does not go unnoticed or hidden from view

MORE than a century after the former editor of The Northern Echo, Willam Thomas Stead, revealed that children were being sold for sex on the streets of Britain, girls and boys are still being sexually exploited in North-East towns and cities.

Organised gangs are grooming children as young as ten, before luring them into a world of drugs, violence and sex for money or gifts.

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Many victims never recover from their experiences and go on to lead desperate lives, with adult prostitution, crime, substance abuse and selfharm common problems.

For some, the horror only stops with their premature death.

Wendy Shepherd, Barnardo’s children’s service manager, who runs the Secos (Sexual Exploitation of Children On the Streets) Project, in Middlesbrough, said: “The sadness for me is that this problem has been going on for such a long time, but we are still in a situation where children are able to be bought and sold, and passed around like pieces of meat.”

Last year, Barnardo’s identified more than 260 cases of child sexual exploitation in the North-East.

However, the charity’s work is limited to a small number of towns and cities and the full picture is only just beginning to emerge.

In November, the region’s local safeguarding children boards were ordered by the Government to map the scale of the problem, often known as “on-street grooming”.

An investigation by The Northern Echo has found that many local authorities in the region found evidence of child sexual exploitation.

However, experts admit the issue remains chronically under-reported.

This is due in part to the young people not identifying themselves as victims, instead thinking that they are in a consensual, loving relationship.

Mark Braithwaite is the independent chairman of Middlesbrough’s Local Safeguarding Children Board.

He said: “Anyone who says it is not happening on their patch is, I think, being naive, or perhaps they are not looking hard enough.”

According to Barnardo’s, children who go missing from home or from care are the most at risk of exploitation.

That risk is increased further if they consume alcohol and drugs. Truancy is another warning sign.

The tactics used by the offenders vary and change regularly, but they will often befriend a young person, or group of young people, over a period of time, meeting them in a public place.

The contact will gradually be increased, with the young person often given gifts of money, phone credit, drugs, alcohol and cigarettes.

Cases of children in the region being groomed online before being sexually exploited have also been found.

Mrs Shepherd said victims often thought they were in a relationship with the offender.

However, she added: “These men know absolutely what they are about – they are there to exploit that young person.

“It could start with the victim asked to have sex with a friend as a favour, for example.

Before they know it, the child, because that’s what they still are, is in way over their heads.”

Barnardo’s, which also runs child sexual exploitation schemes in Darlington, Stockton and Newcastle, has seen increasing evidence of organised groups of men involved in exploitation in the region.

In some cases, charity workers have come across children from County Durham and Teesside who were taken to Leeds or Newcastle to have sex with strangers.

Often the gang will be based loosely at a takeaway restaurant or shop. However, experts stress that the problem of child sexual exploitation is not re-stricted to one particular ethnic group.

While high-profile cases nationally have involved British Asian men, police and charity workers say offenders in the North-East come from a range of backgrounds.

Mrs Shepherd said: “There are perpetrators from every ethnic mix, and it changes over time and from town to town.

“The one thing they have in common though is that their attitudes and behaviour are not suitable for the 21st Century life.”

She said it was also wrong to assume the victim was always white British, with Blacks and Asians just as vulnerable.

Although there have recently been arrests nationally for child sexual exploitation crimes, very few arrests have been made in the North-East.

Officials say it is difficult to gather evidence against offenders, particularly when victims often do not want to give statements to police.

However, police, social services and charities say they are determined to tackle the problem, and are now working together more than ever to raise awareness, help young victims rebuild their lives and prosecute perpetrators.

Detective Superintendent Paul Goundry heads the central referral unit at Durham Police, where police and other agencies share information about at-risk children and potential offenders.

He said: “The police force has moved on. We now no longer see prosecution of the offender as the true success.

“We now see true success as a better outcome for the child.”

However, he added: “That perpetrator will move on to the next child and the police still have a clear role to gather evidence for the Crown to prosecute where appropriate.”

The Stockton Local Safeguarding Children Board was one of several agencies in the region which confirmed it was working with a small number of child sexual exploitation victims.

Colin Morris, chairman of the Stockton board, said: “Sadly, offences often go unreported, which makes it difficult to know how many children are actually at risk.

“A small number of child sexual exploitation victims are currently receiving specialised help and support in helping them move on with their lives.

“Greater awareness and understanding of child sexual exploitation will help safeguard young people and promote their welfare.”

Last year, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (Ceop) Centre published the findings of a six-month investigation into on-street grooming.

The resulting report, Out of Mind, Out of Sight, suggested that the majority of incidents of child sexual exploitation were going unrecognised and unknown, remaining unreported or hidden among other recorded data.

Peter Davies, chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, said: “Child sexual exploitation is child sex abuse – no matter who carries out the act and no matter what the background of the offender.

“The effects are devastating and abuse can continue into adulthood.

“We need to focus on that and break down the barriers that stop any child from coming forward.”

Mr Davies said agencies such as the police and social services needed to be able to identify the signs of abuse and build a supportive relationship with victims.

“Vulnerable victims may not present themselves as victims, may be fearful of investigations or the court process and we need to create an environment throughout the whole of the UK where this is no longer the case,” he added.

Seeing the signs of exploitation

EXPERTS say children and young people often do not recognise that they are being exploited. However, there are a number of telltale signs that a child may be being groomed. These include:

• Going missing for periods of time or regularly returning home late.

• Regularly missing school or not taking part in education.

• Appearing with unexplained gifts or new possessions, associating with other young people involved in exploitation.

• Having older boyfriends or girlfriends.

• Suffering from sexually transmitted infections.

• Mood swings or changes in emotional wellbeing.

• Drug and alcohol misuse.

• Displaying inappropriate sexualised behaviour.

How to break free

IF you’ve been affected by any of the issues featured here, or know someone who has, and are looking for support, contact:

• Barnardo’s – the largest provider of child sexual support exploitation services in the UK, last year working with more than 1,200 victims through 21 specialist services.

• If you are a child who needs help, call Childline on 0800-1111.

• Alternatively, call 0808-800-5000, the NSPCC 24-hour child protection helpline.

Middlesbrough – Secos. Telephone 01642-819743. Opening hours are 9am to 5pm (Mon to Fri) and from 6pm to 11pm (Mon to Thurs);

Newcastle – Scarpa. Call 0191-221-0836. Opening hours are 9am to 5pm (Mon to Fri)

Stockton – Ace. Call 01642-819743. Opening hours are 9am to 5pm (Mon to Fri) and from 6pm to 11pm (Mon to Thurs).

• The Child Exploitation and Online Protection (Ceop) Centre is dedicated to eradicating the sexual abuse of children. Go to ceop.police.uk

• If you are in immediate danger and need help, please call 999.

THE Northern Echo’s series examining child sexual exploitation will continue tomorrow with an in-depth analysis of the problems by Wendy Shepherd, Barnardo’s children’s service manager.