IT can take many forms and often goes undetected... a ‘hidden’ crime, spoken about only in whispers and one that has the potential to leave a young life devastated.
However, in recent months child sexual exploitation has come into sharp focus nationally with reports of high-profile cases in Derby and Rochdale.
Both cases revolve around a familiar pattern of insecure and vulnerable young girls being ‘groomed’ for exploitation by groups of men.
Experts admit that young victims often think they are in a “relationship” or are too afraid or ashamed to come forward. Cases such as this may represent the tip of the iceberg.
Sadly Wigan Borough is not immune from the scourge of child sexual exploitation. The borough has seen a 30 per cent increase in the crime over the past year.
Now the council, by way of its Safeguarding Children Unit, and its partners in Greater Manchester Police, children’s charity Barnardo’s and the Brook Advisory Centre have got together to create a new ‘Shield’ to protect children from the misery and evil of sexual exploitation.
The Shield team is a special task force charged with combating child sexual exploitation in our borough.
Kath Vereycken co-ordinates the council’s role within the team. She said: “The average age that children are most vulnerable to sexual exploitation is between 13 and 15. Often it stems from the young person’s lack of confidence or insecurity.
“Suddenly they find they are getting attention from an older person.
“At first this can seem positive, it can involve them being treated nicely being given gifts and made to feel special, but really the young person is being groomed.”
The end result can see the young person being given “affection” drugs, alcohol and maybe even somewhere to live in return for sexual activity and even child prostitution.
“In such cases the Shield team takes direct action to break the cycle of abuse,” said Kath.
“We offer support to the victims and their families and we will also aim to prosecute those who commit acts of sexual exploitation against children.”
Borough Life presents the account of one local victim of child sexual abuse and while Sophie may not be her real name, her story is:
“I was finding it hard at school, pressure of picking my options for GCSEs and all the course work as well.
I knew I was getting behind but I wasn’t bothered.
At home my parents would tell me to ‘just focus on my work‘. It felt like they didn’t understand and I couldn’t speak to them.
It was getting me down and I hated it. My escape was going on the computer and chatting with my friends.
One night I logged on to the computer and this really nice looking older boy had sent me a friend request.
I accepted straight away, he said he was 21 and for the next week we chatted and sent each other private messages.
We had a lot in common and I told him all about my problems at school and with my parents. He was really nice and said he would help. “
We swapped mobile numbers and arranged to meet up. He had a car and said he would take me out to lunch.
“We decided that I was going to tell my parents that I was meeting up with my mates.
“We got on really well and he would collect me from school or home and we would go to his mate’s house and just chill. I could have anything I wanted.
“He’d buy me cigarettes and make sure I had credit on my phone. Sometimes he would offer me alcohol or drugs.”
Sophie admits she would stay out all night to make her parents worried.
But one day when he picked her up from school things were different.
“He took me to a house and after offering me some alcohol he told me he wanted me to have sex with his friends. I didn’t want to, I was frightened, I thought he cared for me."
Sophie went through with it but afterwards she was wracked with fear and guilt.
She wanted to tell someone but didn't feel she could talk to her parents.
She finally confided in the school nurse who listened and told her about the SHIELD team.
"Sophie's experience is typical of the cases we face,” says Kath Vereycken.
“Sophie was allocated a Barnado’s worker who helped her to realise she was being sexually exploited by this man.”
Sophie said “I realise now I was being groomed by this man and I was putting myself at risk. I have done a lot of work around how to keep yourself safe on the internet and how to report this type of abuse.”
“I’m now back on track at school,” Sophie added. “And I’m getting on better with my parents. I’m not running away and I am happier with life.”
Wigan Council’s Cabinet member for Children and Young People, Cllr Susan Loudon, said: “Far too often this inexcusable crime goes undetected and the sexual exploitation of children continues.
“We need to send a message that there is no room in a civilised society for this type of abhorrent behaviour and it certainly will not be tolerated in Wigan Borough.
“This sort of crime does not happen very often in Wigan, but even once is too many. This inexcusable crime can go undetected and if it does, the sexual exploitation of children will continue.”