‘Don’t take sweets from strangers,” was the old slogan used in those 1960s and 70s . . . creepy, but never forgotten, advertisements which helped educate a generation of children about the dangers posed by unknown adults.
For today’s youngsters, the threat of sexual abuse is still there just as it was years ago. And now we know it can be posed by strangers, family members, friends, peers and the people children meet in their own bedrooms . . . through home computers and smart-phones.
According to the latest figures for Northamptonshire, the number of reported incidents of child sex abuse rose from 237 in 2009-10 to 386 in 2010-11.
The issue is also one which deeply concerns the public, with 57 requests made under “Sarah’s Law” in Northamptonshire for information on the presence of local sex offenders, between August 2010 and February 2012.
The subject of sex attacks on young people recently became the focus of a countywide conference, held at Wootton Hall and organised by the Local Safeguarding Children’s Board (LSCB), which involved speakers of national importance. These included Sheila Taylor, director of the National Working Group for Sexually Exploited Children and Young People, addressing the professionals who come into contact with young people in their daily work.
Det Chief Insp Steve Lingley, head of protecting vulnerable persons and LSCB board member, said: “I think the importance in having this conference is that even though they are a small group of professionals working on safeguarding children, it is important that all the organisations and all the staff understand the signs of abuse and exploitation and know what to do about it.”
The conference was aimed at making people more aware of the threats faced by modern children, to help professionals such as teachers identify the signs of what can be a very hidden and complicated type of abuse.
Speaker Ron Lock, a specialist in Serious Case Reviews (SCRs), revealed that, compared to 10 years ago, fewer children were now subject to Child Protection Plans, yet calls to Childline about sexual abuse had increased.
Speaking about what had been learned from SCRs across the country, Mr Lock said: “It could be that the thresholds have changed or that where we are concerned about sexual abuse, but not clear, we are not putting these names onto Child Protection Plans. There is a gap somewhere, we are missing something along the way.”
He continued: “Professionals need to show they are available to children. Professionals need to have a good knowledge of the impact sexual abuse has on a child.”
Dc Carole Walton, of Northamptonshire Police, a Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) specialist, knows well the threats that new technology poses to today’s children.
Part of her work involves going online under a veiled identity to attempt to catch offenders in the act of grooming young children. She also strives to identify and protect the children whose abuse is recorded in images and videos and shared on the internet.
Dc Walton, who was seconded for two years to CEOP, said: “We would look at pictures of children we did not know and try to find them. The first time was a young boy who was about 11. He was sleeping and clearly did not know what was going on. I found him through another picture I found of him on a social networking site. His abuser was a friend of his mum’s and he was regularly going to stay with this chap. On the day we took part in that job and I got the call to say he was safe, that was the biggest job satisfaction I have had in any of my days as a police officer; to know that child was safe and away from harm, that was job satisfaction at its best.
“I am also one of those people who goes online and pretends to be who I am not, taking over the identity of young people, going up to a 13-year-old and saying I’m going to take over your online identity.”
Through CEOP, a global online protection network is formed so that information and sources are shared on particular offenders and victims across the world.
Social media and the use of smartphones have become so sophisticated and prevalent, Dc Walton now believes there should be more laws in place to protect young people.
One problem she is seeing is the number of youngsters who are taking inappropriate photos of themselves and using them as profile pictures on internet sites, presumably seeing them as acceptable.
Nicknaming the phenomenon after a well-known glamour model, Dc Walton believes it is part of the increased perceived normalisation that certain sexual images have in society today. She said: “We will see a profile image and have to ask, ‘is that an indecent image of that child?’ Pictures used as profile pictures can be wholly inappropiate. We need to be more hard line with parents and professionals who say ‘I don’t know about technology, I’m not from that era.’
She said: “We might come across certain behaviour that doesn’t quite make the legal guidelines, but behaviour that is entirely inappropriate. It is behaviour which doesn’t sit within the law, but it is behaviour which is wrong. It is like we are being carried along, it is common because “everyone does it,” but sit back and look at this in a different way; is it appropriate for a young person to be talking in that manner or posing in that way?
“I think parents need to take back the power and responsibility. Often I hear parents saying they don’t understand it, but they need to.
“A lot of parents will say ‘if I take them offline they would die.’ But if the only way to protect your child is keeping them offline then take them offline.”
Two years ago, Dc Walton was Northamptonshire Police’s only CEOP specialist, but since then the training has continued and now there is a small team responsible for carrying out this work.
She said: “You rarely find a child at senior school without a mobile and without unrestricted access to the internet.
“So many young people live their lives via social networking, there is a pressure on young people to be popular and have lots of friends and the pressure to be in the online community is very strong.
“But people know how to exploit this and to make contact and gain access to children.”