Parents urged to watch for children at risk

Thursday, 9 February 2017

THE Western Health and Social Care Trust (Western Trust) and the PSNI have issued a warning to parents in the area to be aware of the risk of child sexual exploitation (CSE), after alarming figures released show that approximately 40 young people in any given month are assessed and/or reviewed with regards to being at potential or suspected risk of sexual exploitation.

Presently within the Western Trust area, roughly 25 per cent of these young people are confirmed victims, thought to be at considerable future risk.

Shocking Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) statistics obtained by the NSPCC also show that the internet was used as a gateway by offenders to commit 139 sex offences against children in Northern Ireland in 2015/2016.

The majority of offences (105) involved 12 to 15-year-olds and in over a fifth (30) of cases, the victims were aged 11 and under.

It is believed that children are most vulnerable to sexual exploitation between the ages of 13 and 15-years-old, but younger victims are being targeted all the time.

Child sexual exploitation is a form of sexual abuse when a person exploits or manipulates a child or young person into engaging in some form of sexual activity in return for something tangible, for example money or gifts. The return may also be something intangible such as perceived affection.

Branding the figures as "extremely concerning", Jacqui Montgomery-Devlin, for Barnardo's NI, said: "These figures are extremely concerning but we are not surprised by them; child exploitation is a heinous crime. It is a form of abuse that affects both boys and girls. It is unacceptable that even one child should be a victim of it.


'Hidden crime'

"The sad truth is that it is also a very hidden crime and for every child who is identified there will be many more. Through our work with our Safe Choices service which supports children and young people affected by  sexual exploitation we know that it is happening in every town and area across Northern Ireland.

"With nearly every child having access to computers and many now with smartphones it is increasingly easy for potential groomers to make contact with children and young people online, through social apps, online gaming etc and there are always new sites appearing.

Parents can also feel out of their depth because children know so much more about the online world. Young people who feel isolated can be particularly vulnerable. However social media is not the only way groomers make contact, in many instances it is still through person to person meeting  either someone they know, or someone they're introduced to by a friend."

Issuing advice to parents, Jacqui added: "There is a lot of help and information out there but our main advice would be to keep communicating with your child about what online sites and apps they're using, who they're talking to online and who their online friends are."

Charmaine McNally, child sexual exploitation lead, Western Trust, said: "As the CSE lead for the Western Trust, I work collaboratively with other professionals to safeguard and support young people living in our area from such harm.

There are approximately 40 young people in any given month assessed and/or reviewed in regards to being at potential or suspected risk of CSE.

"At this present moment in time specifically, within the Western Trust, approximately 25 per cent of these young people are confirmed victims, deemed to be at considerable future risk. A significant amount of resources are designated to protect these young people, support them through their experience and to disrupt those who have caused such harm.

"The impact of CSE, as with any other form of abuse can have a devastating impact, which can be long lasting. With greater awareness, shared responsibility from both professionals and local communities, we need to work together to prevent the future harm of our young people."


Warning signs

Sexual exploitation can be difficult to identify and some warning signs are mistakenly dismissed as 'normal' teenage behaviour. Young people who are being sexually exploited may: be intimidated and fearful of certain people or situations, hang out with groups of older people, or antisocial groups or with other vulnerable peers.

They may have older boyfriends or girlfriends and may spend time at places of concern such as licensed premises, nightclubs or known party houses. They also may not know where they have been because they have been taken to unfamiliar locations around the country and may go missing regularly from home or their place of education.

Kieran Downey, executive director of social work/director of women's and children's services, Western Trust, said: "Child sexual exploitation can have a major impact on young people, making them feel trapped and manipulated.

This feeling can lead to anxiety, depression, drug or alcohol abuse or self-harm and can have long term consequences on school work and family life. There is no typical victim of child sexual exploitation, however there are warning signs which may indicate something is wrong, therefore it is vital that parents are aware of the risks and how they can protect their child."

Detective superintendent Deirdre Bones, from the PSNI's Public Protection Branch, added: "Child sexual exploitation is something that everyone needs to be aware of. It is not a specific criminal offence in itself however it does encompass a range of sexual offences and other forms of serious criminal misconduct. Our efforts are very focused on disrupting and prosecuting offenders and protecting those young people at risk of exploitation.

"This is a very complex issue. Often victims do not recognise that they are being exploited and often confuse exploitation for affection. This is why it is vital that we all know the signs to look out for so that those who are exploited get the help they need and those who are exploited get the help they need and those who are exploiting them can be held to account."

If you would like more information or support, contact Barnardos on:, the NSPCC on: or the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland at: and parents are encouraged to attend any online safety awareness events organised through schools.

For more information on child sexual exploitation and support contact the Gateway Team from Monday to Friday between 9am to 5pm on: 028 7131 4090 or the regional emergency social work service outside these hours on: 028 9504 9999. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has lots of useful information and can be visited at: You can also contact the Barnardo's NI Safe Choices Service on: 028 9065 8511.


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