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Urgent action needed to protect children from exploitation by gangs, says Children’s Commissioner

Home Affairs Committee continues to hear evidence on child exploitation by gangs after Rochdale

A nationwide Inquiry by the Office of the Children's Commissioner has found that 2,409 children and young people were confirmed victims of child sexual exploitation in gangs or groups in the 14 month period from August 2010 to October 2011. The Inquiry also identified that between April 2010 and March 2011 there were 16,500 children in England who were at high risk of child sexual exploitation.

"I thought I was the only one. The only one in the world", the report of the first year's findings of a two year Inquiry into child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups, is, according to the Children's Commissioner, the most comprehensive investigation to date of the scale, scope and prevalence of child sexual exploitation in these contexts in England. The conclusions are drawn from extensive evidence submitted by the Government, police, local authorities, health services, voluntary sector agencies and children and young people themselves.

Young people quoted in the report describe experiences of rape and violence of a relentless nature, often lasting years. Many suffer long-term physical, psychological and emotional harm as a result of their experiences.

The Office of the Children's Commissioner is calling for urgent action to protect vulnerable children from all forms of sexual exploitation. All agencies working with children should immediately ensure their operational staff are made aware of the list of warning signs of sexual exploitation, such as: missing from home, care or school, repeated sexually transmitted infections, patterns of offending, misuse of drugs or alcohol, self harm and other physical injuries.

As part of the Inquiry, the University of Bedfordshire was commissioned to examine sexual violence in gangs. The emerging findings from this study are also published. Please click here for that report.

Maggie Atkinson, Children's Commissioner for England, said:

"This report is a wake-up call. Each and every one of us owes it to all victims to be vigilant, to listen and to act to stop the sexual exploitation of children. Identifying the warning signs listed in the report is the first step to identifying and protecting children.

"We welcome the increase in awareness of child sexual exploitation and the progress agencies have made in their approaches to tackling the issue. However, much still needs to be done to prevent exploitation and rescue child victims."

Sue Berelowitz, Deputy Children's Commissioner, who leads the Inquiry said:

"The reality is that each year thousands of children in England are raped and abused by people seeking to humiliate, violate and control them. The impact on their lives is devastating. These children have been abducted, trafficked, beaten and threatened after being drawn into a web of sexual violence sometimes by promises of love and sometimes simply because they know there is no alternative. This abuse and violence can be relentless and take place anywhere - as they go home from school, as they walk to the shops, in the their local park.

"The vast majority of the perpetrators are male and in both gang and group contexts, different models of exploitation have been identified. Perpetrators range in age from young adolescents to older men. The evidence is clear that they come from all ethnic groups and so do their victims – contrary to what some may wish to believe. This report does not shy away from the shocking realities of what is happening up and down the country.

"It is vital agencies improve the information they share about the victims and those at risk of sexual exploitation, so that children can be better protected."

Professor Jenny Pearce, University of Bedfordshire:

"Our interviews with children living in gang affected neighbourhoods across England leave us shocked by the extreme levels of sexual violence that are assumed to be inevitable in the everyday lives of the children concerned. Evidence shows routine serious sexual assault of girls for whom saying 'no' is not an option because they are threatened and forced into sex.  Although boys needed prompting to talk, they spoke about sex being used as both intimidation and humiliation between boys who are in conflict with each other."

The final report for the two-year Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups will be published in autumn 2013. Year two of the Inquiry will focus on how to tackle the sexual exploitation of children. The Inquiry will be investigating examples of good practice so that these lessons can be shared nationally.

Responses to the Children's Commissioner's report

Children's Society
Commenting on the publication of the children's commissioner's report (press release, full report) into child sexual exploitation, Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children's Society, said:

"This report is a sobering reminder that child sexual exploitation tragically remains a widespread problem that can happen to any child, in any community. It shows that this is clearly not an historic problem, confined to the culture and attitudes of the past.

"The numbers in this report are shocking, yet they may only represent the tip of the iceberg. Way too many victims are still going undetected."

NSPCC
Andrew Flanagan, CEO of the NSPCC, said:

"In recent months the NSPCC's specialist teams dedicated to helping children targeted for grooming and sexual exploitation have worked with around 70 girls from a range of ethnic backgrounds with the majority aged between 14 and 16 - although some were as young as 11. Any young person suffering this abuse must be encouraged to speak out by telling a trusted adult, the police or by calling ChildLine."

Association of Directors for Children's Services
Debbie Jones, President of ADCS, said: 

"Awareness of sexual exploitation in its various forms has been increasing rapidly over the last few years. Local agencies, including police and social workers, but also youth workers, schools and others working with children are increasingly able to identify the signs of sexual exploitation and know how to take appropriate action. They are also developing better preventative measures, such as robust sex education in schools dealing with the law of consent and the nature of healthy relationships. It is vital that staff in all these agencies are trained to listen to young people and take their concerns seriously, investigate accusations promptly and be conscious of the need to produce evidence admissible in court. Police and social workers working together to support victims and prosecute perpetrators can produce real results as we have seen in the recent successful court cases. There is no room for complacency and all agencies and areas must now seek to learn from those that are offering effective services for preventing sexual exploitation, tracking down and prosecuting perpetrators and for helping those who have experienced it to rebuild their lives. We are grateful to the support being offered by the Children's Improvement Board in this regard."

British Association of Social Workers
Bridget Robb, acting chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers said: 

"[W]e are living in a society where the currency of sex and the language of abusive relationships are increasingly seen as the norm; not by all young people, but certainly by a growing and worrying amount of young people.
 
"We have men, women and young people themselves who exploit this shift in attitudes, and they come from all walks of life, including people of all ethnicities and inclduing celebrities. What they all have in common is that they are using sexual abuse to exercise power and to satisfy their own needs.

"Their use of power, secrecy and grooming techniques can prevent some children from even realising they are victims. These common threads can also prevent the abuse ever being proven, with bribes and threats part of the perpetrator's armoury, as well as, if it ever gets that far, efforts to discredit a child's testimony. This discrediting often extends to those professionals attempting to intervene, such as social workers. 

"We need to start thinking seriously about how we want our young people to be perceived, treated and protected from this pernicious trend towards sexualising children. 

"It seems easier to lurch from one crisis to another rather than to ensure we raise awareness across the board, have sufficient training and support for professionals and, above all, accept the need for societal change.
 
"We must try to make it easier for children and young people to tell us when they are afraid or being ill-treated. The earlier we can reach children the better."

House of Commons Home Affairs Committee

The Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons is currently taking evidence from the Heads of Public Protection Units at Lancashire Constabulary and Greater Manchester Police to examine the differing methods which forces use to tackle Child Sexual Exploitation.

Committee Chair Keith Vaz MP said:

"Roger Ellis, the former Chief Executive of Rochdale Council, told the Committee last week that he knew nothing about the sexual exploitation of children in Rochdale – some of whom were looked after by the local authority – until charges were brought.

"We will be asking those responsible for children's services at the time about who knew what, and when and why no action was taken for so many years.

"We will also be looking at the reasons for the failure of multi-agency working to protect vulnerable children and what can be done in the future to improve co-operation between the police, local authorities and other agencies responsible for child protection."