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Children at greater risk of sexual exploitation during lockdown, warns NSPCC

24 Sep Children at greater risk of sexual exploitation during lockdown, warns NSPCC

The NSPCC’s child sexual exploitation experts are warning that children have been at greater risk of abuse during lockdown – but fear many may not have been able to get help.

Throughout the pandemic practitioners have continued to be there for children, and supported over 200 children at risk. In Peterborough, the service centre was unable to deliver face-to-face sessions until last week when the centre introduced a gradual reopening of three days a week.

Meanwhile, Childline saw counselling sessions about child sexual exploitation, grooming, and contact with a person who posed an online sexual abuse risk increase by 18% during the lockdown.

But the NSPCC’s frontline teams, who work in the Protect and Respect service, worry that many more children may have suffered from sexual exploitation, and will not have had access to their normal avenues of support and protective adults.

This echoes the warning last week from Chief Constable Simon Bailey who said he suspected the 25% fall in referrals to the police was a “false and misleading picture” of what children may have experienced during those months.

A recent NSPCC report ‘Isolated and Struggling’, showed how lockdown increased the risks of child abuse and neglect.

Now children are back in school the charity wants to see communities – schools, parents, and professionals – work together to spot the signs of abuse, enable children to come forward, and make sure they have access to the right support.

It has released an animation to help raise awareness.

Following the Safeguarding Minister, Victoria Atkins’ welcome commitment in August that its Tackling Child Sexual Abuse strategy would be published “by the end of the year”, the NSPCC is urging the Government to push ahead with finalising a blueprint for action.

To deal with the type of worrying cases and situations that the charity’s frontline Protect and Respect practitioners encounter, it is vital that the new strategy puts prevention and timely, specialist support for victims at its core.

The NSPCC routinely helps and hears from children who are being manipulated or blackmailed into carrying out sexual acts. For many, this impacts on their mental health and leaves them feeling isolated from the people closest to them. Some turn to self-harm, alcohol, or substance misuse as ways of coping with their experiences.

Since the NSPCC’s Protect and Respect service launched in 2012, it has supported 3,618 young people at risk of exploitation – almost half of referrals came from schools. In Peterborough, practitioners have historically worked with over 450 children and almost 50 parents.

Kerrie Johnstone is an NSPCC Protect and Respect Childrens Service Practitioner who specialises in group work, she said: “These sessions give many young people, who have suffered or believe they are suffering from sexual exploitation, an opportunity to share their experiences in a safe environment with peers who understand what they’re doing through.

“Awareness raising sessions give young people, aged 11-19 the opportunity to talk about their experiences online and in the real world in a safe environment with a focus on healthy relationships and consent. We also do group work with 16-18 year olds around relationships with people in positions of trust.

“There are so many signs of verbal and non-verbal consent and today so many young people simply aren’t aware of the dangers just outside their door. We all understand the intentions of a rude person, but what is grooming behaviour and unhealthy relationships? The signs are not straightforward most of the time and that’s why young people struggle to identify themselves as victims of exploitation.

“We talk about what consent is and the verbal/non-verbal cues. The emphasis is around healthy relationships and we identify what this looks like with group activities and discussions. The signs are not straightforward and young people struggle to consider they are being exploited. During lockdown, awareness raising has moved to virtual one to one sessions.

“This group work also great for us too. Keeping up-to-date with the tech world isn’t easy especially now and we learnt a lot about the latest apps and games and what children were experiencing online.

“Maintaining contact and regular sessions with young people digitally throughout the pandemic is how we have adapted. It’s a vital lifeline to some, just knowing they have the support and can talk to someone they trust.

“As COVID-19 continues to impact on our lives, we will continue to adapt how we work on the frontline to help children cope and recover.”

NSPCC practitioners help young people aged between 11-19 who have been or are, at risk of being coerced or forced into sexual activity – both online and offline.

Helen Shellard has been a Children’s Service Practitioner in Peterborough and surrounding areas for over a decade and conducts one to one sessions regarding Protect and Respect, she said: “This sort of abuse acts like a tsunami ripping apart families and friendships if it goes undetected and that’s why this service is so important.

“These abusers go out of their way to turn the victim against everyone close to them in order to gain full control of the individual. These is usually done through gifts and affection when the person needs it the most, once this victim has feelings of love the situation then becomes very confusing.

“And there is an obvious need for these services. Our referrals are now filled up until the end of November and this is increasing daily.”

The players of People’s Postcode Lottery donated £730,000 to the Protect and Respect service last year, the equivalent of funding the salaries of 18 practitioners for a year.

Meanwhile, over the past year, the charity’s Childline service carried out 2,039 counselling sessions with children concerned about online sexual exploitation.