Children across the south west are victims of sexual exploitation.
But while media reports often highlight cases of adult grooming and child abuse, Devon and Cornwall Police say the most likely form of child sexual exploitation (CSE) in the south west is perpetrated by other young people.
It’s sometimes referred to as ‘peer on peer’ exploitation, and its victims are young males and young females.
“People may be unaware that CSE can be perpetrated by young people aged 18 or younger, and they themselves may also have been victims of CSE,”
says Detective Chief Inspector Alison Lander, Devon & Cornwall Police and Force lead for CSE.
Recent research led by Plymouth’s Safeguarding Children’s Board found little awareness and understanding among young people of peer on peer sexual exploitation.
Their research showed that this form of exploitation in particular was not widely recognised or understood as a crime, which is preventing children from reporting it.
They found that young people are also not reporting sexual exploitation because they worry that doing so would lose them friendships; they’re concerned about how their parents might react; or that they’ll be seen as wasting police time.
Monday 18 March is a national awareness day for highlighting CSE.
Authorities across the peninsula are using the day to say to children and young people,
“If you are put in a situation where you feel pressured sexually, please report it. It’s OK to tell someone.”
Lisa, (not her real name)
Lisa is 15 years old and lives with her mother. She began to go missing, leaving the house during the middle of the night to meet peers, and there were concerns about her drinking alcohol during while out.
Her behaviour in school and at home deteriorated with no clear reason. Her mum found information on Lisa’s phone, indicating that she had become sexually active, and having unprotected sex.
Lisa said that she’d exchanged indecent images of herself with some of boys at her school.
On occasions that she went missing, Lisa was drinking alcohol and smoking cannabis with her male friends. She’d had sex with one of the boys while under the influence, and he’d told his friends about it.
Lisa started getting messages from other boys asking her to send pictures of herself in her underwear. Lisa felt uncomfortable, but said ‘everyone sends nudes’. And besides, she felt it was nice to have boys be interested in her in that way.
One boy said that he could get some cannabis, and he offered some to Lisa in exchange for sex. She’s thought he was joking, but the boy repeated it a few times and on a later occasion with him, she went along with what he asked.
Regional Head of Service for the NSPCC, Sharon Copsey, says:
“Having early conversations about healthy relationships and consent is vital to tackling child sexual exploitation before it starts. We know that young people don’t always understand that what’s happening to them is abuse.”
Detective Chief Inspector Alison Lander, said:
“Many young people who are being exploited do not realise they are at risk and will not ask for help. Some may see themselves as willing participants in such abuse, not realising that what is happening to them is illegal. It’s a difficult message to convey to young people, but it’s really important that they are aware of risk and how to avoid it. Crucially they need to know how to report it, and to have confidence to do so.
“The public can really help us detect and prevent CSE among young people by knowing the signs and reporting any concerns they have.
“It’s not just parents, or teachers and carers who can help spot the signs of CSE. Anyone working in a service industry, such as taxi drivers and hotel workers, shop keepers – anyone who may be able to spot vulnerable young people who may be at risk of exploitation or in an exploitative relationship – can also help to spot the signs and to report any concerns.”
Andy Bickley, Independent Chair of Plymouth Safeguarding Children’s Board, said:
“We are committed to working with local organisations to tackle child sexual abuse and exploitation and CSE Day is the ideal opportunity to help improve awareness.
“This latest research shows that it isn’t just adults that exploit children and young people, it can also be their peers, so it’s really important that we make sure our young people know what the dangers are, and also what support is available.”
Schools across the South West and services that work with young people, are actively raising awareness of CSE among young people. Parents and guardians are being encouraged to do the same at home.
To find out more about child sexual exploitation, and how to spot the signs, visit the Devon Children and Families Partnership website.
There are a number of local and national agencies that can help, including Barnado’s, NWG, NSPCC, as well as local Safeguarding Children’s Boards including the NHS, Social Care, Education and the Police.
More information about Child Sexual Exploitation and NWG’s CSE Awareness Day, 18 March 2019, is available online Devon and Cornwall Police’s website.