Child exploitation is a hidden crime, protection experts warn

Child exploitation expert Wendy Shepherd said alleged crimes against children in the North East continue to come to light

Police activity following raids in the West End of Newcastle
Police activity following raids in the West End of Newcastle

Many children across Tyneside are the victims of an evil hidden crime, according to professionals trying to stamp out child exploitation.

Child protection workers believe the arrests of 18 people on conspiracy to rape teenagers and young adults in Newcastle on Monday may be the tip of the iceberg of alleged crimes against women.

While money and resources have been pumped into Teesside to help vulnerable young girls since the mid-1990s, in Newcastle potential criminal activity has only recently been uncovered with resources to help women less developed.

Wendy Shepherd, children’s services manager for charity Barnardo’s, has spearheaded the campaign against child exploitation in the region for 17 years and said that while Monday’s arrests were deeply concerning, she believes potential crimes are being carried out against women in every community in the North East.

“What’s shocking about this is that we continue to see these alleged cases come to light. We are now seeing the arrests of alleged perpetrators,” she said.

“I’m shocked on one hand but on another we are seeing law enforcement which infers that there is some disruption and arrests that have been made to the alleged perpetrators of abuse.

“Sadly there’s too much alleged abuse coming to light.

“We have been working on this for a number of years across the North East and I think the local authorities and statutory agencies are really taking this incredibly seriously.”

Vulnerable girls as young as 12 were found to be spending time on the streets in Middlesbrough during the 1990s which prompted the local authority and Barnardo’s to jump into action.

Resources were put in place through the charity to work with the girls to try and break their social routine and three specialist centres were set up in the region, the Sexually Exploited Children on the Streets (SECOS) set up in Middlesbrough, Against Child Exploitation in Stockton and several years later the Safeguarding Children at Risk, Prevention and Action (SCARPA) was set up in Newcastle, which is now run by the Children’s Society. A spokeswoman for Barnardo’s said: “Middlesbrough was unusual because it had a very visible scene of girls on the streets as young as 12-years-old around 15 to 16 years ago. In Newcastle there has never been that street scene so it’s very difficult to get a handle on a situation when you can’t see it.

“In Newcastle alleged crimes have been in houses which means it’s very difficult to invest in resources and stay in touch with these young people.

“It’s really hard and that’s what we’ve always found when we have been doing work into alleged sexually exploited men and young boys. It’s very secretive.

“It goes on but it’s hard to investigate because it’s underground.”

Following the arrests on Monday, Northumbria Police officers said they will be working alongside the National Crime Agency unit the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP). The organisation identifies the main threats to children across the UK and aims to bring people carrying out offences against children to account.

Officers are also liaising with police forces elsewhere in the country which have experienced a similar number of arrests on child exploitation offences in recent years for advice.

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