Reports of child sex exploitation cases are rocketing in the North East. Barbara Hodgson hears about the scale of the problem from a boss of the UK’s largest children’s charity which is launching an emergency appeal for funds to help it tackle the tip of an iceberg.
The cold stark facts make disturbing reading. Compared with 2010, children’s charity Barnardo’s last year saw more than treble the number of sexually exploited girls and boys needing help in our region and some victims were just seven years old.
The high-profile Jimmy Savile child abuse fall-out, the Rotherham scandal and Westminster paedophile ring claims - and now suggestions of a Metropolitan Police cover-up - have all triggered the surge in referrals to the charity experts.
And as they struggle to meet the growing demand around the country they have launched a national campaign to address the knock-on urgent need for £370,000 extra funds, to tackle what a spokesman called “an unprecedented demand” for Barnardo’s services.
While many of us may think the uncomfortable subject - if we give it any thought at all - is somebody else’s, or somewhere else’s, problem, or conveniently imagine we have the necessary agencies in place to deal with it, we risk turning a blind eye to a issue which is indeed right under our nose.
Shocking statistics reveal that Barnardo’s worked with 178 sexually exploited children in the North East last year, more than triple the number of 2010, while across the country the year on year increase in children supported by its specialist CSE (child sexual exploitation) services rose from 1,190 in 2010-2011 to 1,452 in 2011-12; 1,940 in 2012-2013 and 2,118 in 2013-14.
Barnardo’s, which has been working with vulnerable children since 1994, has rapidly expanded the number of its specialist CSE services as more children are referred to the charity for support but it simply hasn’t the capacity to meet the growing need.
Its chief executive officer Javed Khan said: “The scale of this abuse is shocking.
While the charity, which has added 10 new locations to its remit and now provides support in 47 different areas across the UK, offers more help for sexually exploited children than anywhere else, it is generally accepted such work reaches just the tip of a notoriously well-hidden iceberg.
Wendy Shepherd, the national implementation manager for CSE, said all its services have seen an increase.
“And we are just one organisation,” she pointed out. “We are not dealing with the whole issue of sexual exploitation in every town and city, but a percentage.
“These are the just the cases we know about. There will be a number never referred to us and if we are having an increase as an organisation, what is the increase other organisations and agencies have seen?
“We have said many, many times, we are just getting to grips with the reality of child exploitation and vulnerable children and we are beginning to see the emerging picture but that’s what it is - an emerging picture.
“There is much more for us to find and for us to do.”
One of its major local successes has been the SECOS (Sexual Exploitation of Children On the Streets) Project, set up in the Tees Valley in 1998 to tackle those trapped in prostitution in Darlington, Middlesbrough and Stockton.
The insidious nature of sex abuse has flourished since then due in part, of course, to social media making it “quicker and easier” said Wendy. But it can happen anywhere.
“Child sex abuse has never really been correctly dealt with over the years,” she said.
“I think the Jimmy Savile case shows how easy it has been for paedophiles to abuse children.
“Exploitation is another form of that sexual abuse and there are many ways children can be exploited. It’s not just the Jimmy Savile scenario. It can be through groups, gangs, offline, online, in parks, bus stations, takeaways, public conveniences - wherever children congregate these day, you have to be vigilant.
“Paedophiles - I don’t like that word, but ‘exploiters’ - congregate there too.”
The men, sometimes in groups, sometimes a single man posing as boyfriend material, are good at spotting vulnerability and lead their targets into networks and situations beyond their control.
“They take them to parties where there are other men who want to have sex with them and abuse them,” said Wendy.
“That intention to abuse them is there right at the beginning.
So how does the problem in our region compare to elsewhere?
Wendy said: “It’s very difficult to compare the North East to other parts of the country.
“We have an increase of sexual grooming in the North East as in every town around the country and I think we have to be getting better at recognising it quickly enough.”
SECOS, which also identified sexually exploited adults, revealed that the “Joe Bloggs” preying on them in cars were white British males spanning all walks of life and it uncovered instances of prostitution involving children as young as 12.
”We’re living in a much more multi-cultural society than we were and different things happen in different cultures.” She added: “There’s not the same gang culture here as in London, Liverpool and Manchester where it’s more defined.
“What we have is males who will do the recruiting and grooming and set up parties where other associates will procure children for exploitation.”
And of the difference made by social media to the situation of 15 years or so ago, she said: “Sex abuse and exploitation has always been around but because of this accessibility it is much quicker and easier.”
Besides exchange of information and online chat, sexualised images portrayed in media and the music industry leave young people even more confused at a stage they want to be out and socialising. And this is taken full advantage of by those preying on the vulnerable,” she said.
“If they find themselves at 14 in a house filled with other girls and boys and lots of other men, they are not able to assert themselves very easily.
“They end up in situations they never thought they would end up in then they are ashamed and frightened.”
The work of Barnardo’s and like-minded agencies is crucial in persuading victims to talk about the abuse.
“It’s so important they come forward. We want a clear message that there are people there who are going to listen.
“Expecting a child of 13 or 14 who has been raped and abused to talk about it easily is a misconception.
“It takes time to build up trust with the worker - it might take months.
“Attached to the sex abuse is shame and self-blame. They maybe think ‘I shouldn’t have had that drink’. I don’t remember what happened to me but I know something did’.”
Their role is often to support devastated parents too.
“People seem to think the families the children come from don’t care. But they care deeply about what has happened and they go through a really difficult time with their children because the perpetrator has such a hold on them.”
Staff work closely with local authorities and with police to bring about prosecutions but the toll taken by a court case on a victim can’t be under-estimated, said Wendy.
“But the more successful court cases, the more the professionals and families talk and the more that young people see justice, then the more they are going to talk to us.”
Barnardo’s has good coverage of the region in the Tees Valley, Durham and Darlington and has worked in Newcastle and Sunderland in partnership with The Children’s Society which is now well-established there.
But extra funds are vital for more support workers and will be spent where the need is most pressing. As Wendy said, “if we can get an extra worker, their list will be immediately filled”.”
But she ends on a positive note, saying: “We’ve some way to go but we’re in the best position we’ve ever been.
“At least now it’s on everybody’s radar. People are now listening and people are wanting to make a difference.”
To contribute to the appeal visit www.barnardos.org.uk
The term “child sexual exploitation” covers seemingly ‘consensual’ relationships or sex for attention, accommodation, gifts or cigarettes as well as serious, organised crime.
The SECOS Project, helping young people escape prostitution, has bases in Stockton, Darlington and Middlesbrough where it found the average age for those being exploited and abused was between 12 and 13 years old. But the charity has also worked with boys and girls as young as 10.
Physical abuse and imprisonment is often linked to the sex abuse and 87% of the exploited children helped have been involved in drugs; 55% regularly go missing from home and 53% self-harm, ranging from self-mutilation and overdosing to eating disorders and crime.
Many have similar stories of being groomed by an abuser who is also their drug dealer or boyfriend.
Project workers offer a confidential service and actively seek out those at risk, offering long-term support if they want it.
They also collaborate with schools on education projects and with police to bring about prosecutions.
Wendy Shepherd said: “I believe sexual exploitation is becoming more organised; the criminals who abuse are more sophisticated.
“There are networks of older men grooming and trafficking children within the UK. It’s a growing phenomenon and it’s extremely difficult to police.
“Another area of concern is the frightening number of children who go missing repeatedly and are found to have been sexually exploited.
“It’s a huge risk factor for youngsters and we are worried that it’s still largely being ignored.”
Sam, whose name is changed to protect her identity, is one former victim set on the road to recovery by Barnardo’s.
Just 13 when she was referred to the charity, she had been permanently excluded from school because of her disruptive behaviour and frequent absences and was placed in a pupil referral unit.
She would go missing from home every night, was believed to be dependent on drink and drugs, self-harmed and had suffered a possible miscarriage.
As her home life reached crisis point she also struck out at her mother and siblings.
A charity spokesman said: “She was found in the homes of known drug dealers with other young women who were already known to us.
“It was clear to us that she was being sexually exploited.”
But through working with child support specialists, Sam’s behaviour changed dramatically to the point she returned to school almost every day.
And having learned about grooming she started making posters and storyboards for the charity to help other children.
The spokesman added: “More young victims of sexual exploitation need our help than ever before.
“We want to be there for more of them and our urgent appeal will help ensure we have the trained professionals.”