Child sexual exploitation is a shocking crime dominating the political and media agenda. It can take place out of sight in the darkened corners of towns and cities across the country.
We know the perpetrators of this crime seek out victims under cover of darkness. Night time affords them the opportunity to target vulnerable young people with less scrutiny from the authorities and suspicion from the public.
In the post-Rotherham world, local and central government are taking steps to tackle child sexual exploitation. Innovative projects across the country are doing amazing work to safeguard at-risk young people and help break the cycle of abuse.
Barnardo’s has just received a grant from the Department for Education to engage with the ‘night time economy’. We will reach out to bouncers, street sweepers and hospital staff across England so they can be the nocturnal ‘eyes and ears’ in the fight against child sexual exploitation.
The pilot, called ‘In Plain Sight,’ will engage with workers through a combination of classroom teaching and outreach – taking to the streets to talk to people in their place of work. We will deliver the project in 12 areas across England. Our experts will work with other child sexual exploitation projects in each region.
Child sexual exploitation can be found in leafy suburbs and rural settings as well as on the streets of major cities. The children who are abused live among us and there are always signs that someone, somewhere can see – if they look hard enough.
Perpetrators rely on no-one picking up on the signs – or, if they do, failing to act on them. Sexually exploited children are manipulated to believe they are in a loving relationship. They rely on the young people being too scared or confused to seek help.
All communities have a responsibility to open their eyes, to see children at risk and act to keep them safe. People who work at night – whether they run off-licences or serve in fast-food shops – have an important role to play in keeping our young people safe.
Those workers must understand how to spot a vulnerable child, know the risks to their wellbeing and what action to take. If a taxi driver has an intoxicated child in the backseat of their car, alarms bells should be ringing. If a street cleaner sees a young person alone and distressed in the early hours of the morning, alarm bells should be ringing.
It is through innovative schemes like ‘In Plain Sight’ that we can equip ordinary members of society to help disrupt child sexual exploitation.
A bus driver who picks up a dishevelled child in the company of older men needs to know needs to know what to do. An A&E doctor who treats a young person under the influence of alcohol and drugs in the early hours of the morning should be ready to act.
I can’t overstress just how acutely vulnerable sexually exploited children are or the profound damage this abuse does to young lives, families and communities. We must take any chance we get to extricate a child from the torment they are suffering.