Expertise will help forces learn from past cases.
A national charity has been helping police forces in the West Midlands to drive a culture change in their battle to prevent child sexual exploitation.
NWG Network is providing the expertise and resources so that organisations in the front line – like the police – can learn from the failings of cases like Rochdale and Rotherham.
The police were among those who came in for collective criticism following those two high-profile child sexual exploitation cases, and since then there has been a determination across the board to learn from what went wrong.
Now, thanks to the work of Derbyshire-based NWG, those tackling CSE and grooming are working much closer together and sharing best practice across the board.
Since Rochdale, and the subsequent case of grooming and child sexual abuse in Rotherham, NWG has been working with police forces up and down the country to help them become better at identifying, preventing, disrupting and tackling CSE largely through a joined-up response. The recent high-profile Newcastle case – Operation Sanctuary – where 18 people were convicted of abusing young girls, shows that more work still needs to be done.
The recent harrowing portrayal of the Rochdale CSE case in the BBC drama Three Girls laid bare some of the failings by those whose role is to protect young people, and the Bethany storyline on TV soap Coronation Street has shown how easily youngsters can be groomed.
Police forces in the West Midlands are among those who are getting smarter at dealing with child sexual exploitation. The development of a CSE social media library is just one development that is helping the police in the county to move forward.
Mick Hudson, who is NWG’s Response Team lead on crime and justice, believes the creation of dedicated teams to tackle CSE is having a positive effect. It means the police, social services, the health service, education and others are working closer together so that they have a joined-up and consistent response. “We had to start recognising our failings in dealing with CSE and it has been an uncomfortable journey for some organisations and that is why we are much better at it going forward now.”
Detective Inspector Kay Wallace, the CSE co-ordinator for the West Midlands region, acknowledges that the role of NWG has made a big difference. “NWG is a lynchpin for all the work that is happening nationally so people are not wasting their energy on things that are already in place. Its role is crucial.”
DI Wallace has been working on CSE and child abuse issues for nearly 30 years and appreciates that methods used in tackling it have had to change to keep up with the tactics used by offenders.
The models of CSE are different across the West Midlands region, yet all the forces there are very committed to improving their response to CSE, and this commitment is driven through a regional CSE strategic action plan.
DI Wallace said in Rotherham, initially, the police didn’t think there was a case of CSE. “I am confident that would not happen now,” she said. “The NWG has been instrumental in helping people to understand and question things more. They have more knowledge and challenge things if they need to. It has certainly brought about a culture change in the community of CSE professionals, particularly the third sector.”
She says the trick now is to disrupt abusers, although nowadays most CSE offences have an online link to them. This includes using social media to groom victims, facilitate abuse by chatting and arranging to meet. Social media can also be used by child sexual abusers as a vehicle to commit sexual offences against children and young people online. “The development of the West Midlands national social media library has been invaluable in helping understand the variety of social media sites and Apps used in CSE offending,” she added.
“What NWG has done over time is not only empower the professionals like the police but has now empowered the third sector to have the confidence to question whether something looks like CSE or not,” she said.
Another who has seen the positive effect of NWG’s work is DI Nigel Jones, the strategic lead on CSE for the Warwickshire Police and West Mercia Police alliance.
Following the Office of the Children’s Commissioner Inquiry in 2012 his team realised more needed to be done to tackle CSE and began focused project work to develop and improve practice.
The figures for the region back in 2012 were seven referrals and investigations identified as CSE, so work in Warwickshire and West Mercia was begun to improve systems, understanding and awareness. Last year they identified 1,168 such cases.
DI Jones says it can be a case of CSE being hidden if you’re not looking hard enough for it, but his team had now shone a light on identifying the problem. He added sthat, unlike burglary, which is easy to understand, CSE is like an umbrella of activity with a lot of offences underneath it. “The other problem is that victims don’t normally come knocking on your door,” he said. “CSE victims may not recognise themselves as victims and some can be anti-authority so reluctant to come to the police or other statutory agencies.
“These are some of the challenges we have had to deal with so it was a case of understanding why these victims were not coming forward and dealing with things in a different way.”
Phil Ashford, head of the NWG Response Unit, said it was important for professionals to join NWG because of the levels of support they can offer them. “We understand that it is an incredibly difficult area of work to try and tackle, and sometimes just having a friendly voice at the end of the phone to talk through a particular challenge you are dealing with can be incredibly helpful,” he said.