Concern over the sexual exploitation of children in areas such as Rotherham, Bradford and Rochdale have hit the headlines over the past 12 months, following a series of harrowing testimonies and high-profile court cases.
Earlier this month, two men were jailed for a total of 36 years at Bradford Crown Court for drugging and raping vulnerable under-age girls they found while cruising the streets of West Yorkshire. The pair denied abusing the girls, who were picked up on the streets of Keighley and Halifax, but the two men were convicted of a series of sex and drugs offences. The judge in the case said the men “engaged in a course of conduct which has become increasingly and depressingly familiar in this country.”
This came just a matter of weeks after a police and NSPCC report revealed the full extent of Jimmy Savile’s sex crimes against vulnerable young people.
The Savile revelations shocked the nation when they first emerged and have brought the whole issue of child sexual exploitation to the forefront of people’s minds.
The fall-out from all this is likely to continue for some time, but children’s charity Barnardo’s has been tackling this problem for nearly 20 years and recently launched a campaign to ensure that the justice system treats sexually exploited young people as children.
The petition already has more than 30,000 signatures, but it is just one strand of its ongoing battle to tackle, and preferably prevent, the grooming and exploitation of young people. Kev Robinson is a child sexual exploitation development worker with Barnardo’s, based at Ossett Police Station in West Yorkshire.
He works with social workers and the police, as well as sexual health nurses, youth workers and community groups in an effort to protect vulnerable young people and help bring cases to court.
He has worked with children as young as nine years old but predominantly it’s youngsters aged between 12 and 15. He says there are certain signs to look out for when identifying abuse and exploitation.
“Sometimes it can be a gradual deterioration of behaviour over a period of time. They might go missing, or their circle of friends may change, or there are increased instances of them using drugs or alcohol. Their school attendance might drop, too. These are all little indicators that something might be happening in that child’s life.”
Most people probably assume that victims of child sexual exploitation come from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds, but Robinson says that isn’t necessarily the case.
“In my experience, there’s no one victim, they come from all walks of life. I’ve worked with young people from what you’d consider typical middle class families, where something’s happened to cause them to become estranged from their family, right through to those who you would consider stereotypical victims of sexual exploitation, those from poorer, lower working class backgrounds.”
It’s not an issue defined by race, either. “We’ve worked with Afro-Caribbean girls, Asian girls, Slovakian girls, as well as white British girls, there’s no one type of victim.” And while girls are more likely to be preyed on, boys are victims, too.
“This is an issue that people are waking up to, because it’s not just girls and it’s not just certain types of girls from certain places who are at risk from certain kinds of men. All young people are potentially at risk from all different kinds of men and women.”
Robinson says the idea that victims come from a certain background can give parents a false sense of security.
“There’s a feeling that it won’t affect them because the people who do this sort of thing won’t come near to their street. But a lot of it is initiated online because there are different kinds of grooming.”
He says that while people target vulnerable youngsters on the streets, others do it more secretly.
“I work with online grooming cases and lots of those perpetrators are white married men with children.
“People think they can close their laptop and go to bed and everything’s OK, but it’s got real world implications and that’s why I work with young people to make them realise that what they do online can have real implications, too.”
He says online grooming can work in different ways. “It can be as simple as people posing as someone younger, sometimes people say they are older and want to chat to someone younger.
“They’re looking for any way to initiate a conversation because this breaks down the barriers and it can get sexual very quickly.”
Some of the cases Robinson has had to deal with make for harrowing reading. “I’ve worked with young people that have been gang raped by a network of individuals and I’ve worked with one young girl who had been raped over 50 times by a group,” he says.
“I’ve worked with young boys who’ve been offered accommodation and gone to stay at people’s houses thinking they were going to be looked after. Someone has taken them in but one boy was locked in and couldn’t get out and he was repeatedly raped.”
In the past child sexual exploitation was viewed by some as a lifestyle issue with young people making bad choices, whereas now it’s all about child protection.
“I think we’ve had a catalyst in the last couple of years with several high-profile cases, and people have started thinking ‘this could be in my town.’ They think this kind of thing happens somewhere else. They don’t expect it in nice, affluent, leafy British cities.”
Robinson works closely with West Yorkshire Police and Wakefield Council, and is part of a joint investigation team whose aim is to help young people at risk. “It’s not just a police issue, or a social care issue or a Barnardo’s issue any more.”
He wants to see all of us take more responsibility for what’s happening in our towns and cities. “We need to be taking more interest in what our children are doing and supporting them and not castigating young people,” he says.
Earlier this month the Centre for Social Justice (CSI) published a study which found that more than 1,000 adults and children were trafficked into or within the UK in 2011/12, warning that this figure could be “only the tip of the iceberg”.
So how widespread is child sexual abuse in this country and is it getting worse?
“When you start uncovering something you often find it’s a bigger problem and that’s what happened with child sexual exploitation over the past five to ten years,” says Robinson.
“When I first got into this work eight years ago there were isolated cases but we had suspicions there was a lot more of it happening and now everyone has woken up to the fact that it is a serious issue.”
But he says it can’t be dealt with overnight. “I think it’s a societal issue and it’s not something that ten police officers, two social workers and one voluntary worker can change.
“But at the same time the public is waking up to realise the person abusing a child could be someone they know – it’s not just the shady man at the end of the street.
“There are lots of different people who are involved in this kind of abuse.”
Robinson, the only male child sexual exploitation worker based in Yorkshire with Barnardo’s, says part of his job is to help the victims to piece their life back together, although gaining their trust can often be a slow process. “When you’re working with a young person if you build up a trusting relationship they start to tell you more and you can start to get a clearer indication of what’s going on.”
He believes high-profile cases that make the news and the culprits are sent to prison send out a positive message.
“It gives some young people a bit of hope that if they go and tell somebody it will be taken seriously and something can be done about it.”
He says more young people are coming forward to help others. “You see this altruism in young people who have been sexually exploited or abused, because they don’t want to see it happen to others and they want to tell their story.”
Robinson believes we have reached a tipping point, and that this issue can no longer be swept under the carpet.
“I think we’re seeing society’s attitudes change. In the past because it’s about children and about sex it’s been a taboo subject, but people are starting to talk about it.”
There’s still a long way to go, though. “Child sexual exploitation exists where I live, it exists where you live, it’s everywhere – and if you don’t see it on the streets then it’s happening online in someone’s bedroom. That’s the scope of the problem.”