Child protection professionals are still failing to recognise key warning signs of sexual exploitation despite a number of recent high-profile abuse cases, according to a major report out today.
The study, by the the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), found that practitioners are unaware of the risks posed to children and do not have clear strategies in place.
In compiling the report, investigators identified 2,083 child victims of sexual exploitation, of whom 311 were in care and 570 had run away from their family home. In more than 1,000 cases, agencies had no record of the child’s background. Experts believe these numbers are the “tip of the iceberg”.
The figures were reported to CEOP by local safeguarding children boards (LSCBs), councils, other agencies and police forces. But the report commented there had been a “limited response particularly from children’s services and LSCBs”. Only 13 LSCBs responded to CEOP’s request for information.
CEOP spent six months carrying out the national thematic assessment into on-street grooming and sexual exploitation after a request from children’s minister Tim Loughton. It concluded that the “hidden issue” is far more widespread than most professionals understand.
To tackle sexual exploitation more effectively, the report recommended that each LSCB must assume the crime occurs in its area unless there is clear evidence to the contrary.
Peter Davies, chief executive of Ceop, said: “What we found from talking to academia, frontline police officers and the wider safeguarding community was that very often understanding and awareness among agencies of this complex crime was not widespread enough.”
Only by actively looking for child exploitation will agencies be able to identify and support victims, he said, adding that it required a long-term and co-ordinated approach.
Sheila Taylor, who from next month will head the National Working Group for Sexually Exploited Children and Young People, warned of “a huge gap in the knowledge of professionals working with children between 10 to 18 years old”.
Key recommendations from the report include:
● All LSCBs must ensure that there is a co-ordinated multi-agency response to sexual exploitation and clear and up to date procedures.
● LSCBs must ensure that those working or in contact with children who are particularly vulnerable understand the signs of exploitation and can refer children for tailored support. There should be particular emphasis on foster carers and residential care staff, as well as all frontline workers that come into contact with missing children.
● Children’s services must ensure that cases of child sexual exploitation are assessed and responded to.
● All frontline agencies should develop ways of capturing and recording data relating to known or suspected cases of sexual exploitation.
Andy McCullough, national strategy and policy adviser at Railway Children, called for better data, claiming a “massive discrepancy” between figures for missing children reported by local authorities and information collected separately from police forces.
“The findings from today’s CEOP report represent the tip of the iceberg which should be cause for enormous concern for this government,” he said. “A great deal of further work needs to be carried out to find out the true scale of what is happening across the country.”
What do you think?Join the debate on CareSpace
Keep up to date with the latest developments in social care. Sign up to our daily and weekly emails