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School dinner ladies can help in the fight against child sexual exploitation

Everyone from school dinner ladies and playground workers to GPs need to be on the alert in the battle against child sexual exploitation.

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That was the message from Ann Griffith, Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner for North Wales, at a major conference organised by children’s charity Barnardo’s Cymru.

The event was one of two conferences held in Cardiff and St Asaph to coincide with Safeguarding Week and mark Barnardo’s Cymru’s 10 years of work on child sexual exploitation (CSE) prevention and victim care.

Ms Griffith told a wide ranging audience of professionals working in education, health, social services and criminal justice that everyone had to work together to spot vulnerable young people and prevent them falling into sexual exploitation.

She welcomed the growing public awareness of CSE, the government recognition and the fact that it now shares high level strategic policing status along with other key national threats such as terrorism and organised crime.

North Wales Police have established the Onyx Team specifically to tackle CSE. “Their work has been instrumental in ensuring the issue is at the forefront of officers’ minds when dealing with day to day incidents involving children,” said Ms Griffith.

She said this had led to a significant increase in CSE intelligence, earlier identification of children at risk and positive interventions. Police have shared training with taxi drivers, leisure staff, probation officers and others and she said it was important for that awareness to be spread still further.

GPs, teachers, school catering staff, playground helpers and a myriad of others need to know about CSE. Police investigations alone won’t effectively tackle the issues,” said Ms Griffith."

Keith Towler, Vice Chair of the National Independent Safeguarding Board set up by the Welsh Government said everyone had a responsibility to listen to children and take them seriously in order to safeguard them from harm.

Meinir Williams-Jones, Assistant Director of Children’s Services with Barnardo’s Cymru, said there were many challenges to tackling CSE, ranging from online abuse, sexting, peer to peer pressure and the easy availability of porn which means that some young people are growing up with skewed views of normal sexual behaviour.

She said:

CSE provision looks different across Wales. There are interventions which can protect and prevent CSE victims but it is a postcode lottery and depends on the services commissioned and the knowledge in each area.”

Her view was echoed by Sally Holland, Children’s Commissioner for Wales, who said it is vital for children to receive a consistent response wherever they live. She said:

“There are still some real gaps. There’s a need for universal education and help for those most at risk. There are some excellent services but we need to make sure they are consistently available,”

Barnardo’s Cymru is working on the three-year Gwella Project with Cardiff University to study the links between CSE and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The charity is calling for long-term interventions with children at risk to help them build resilience and make healthy choices for the future.

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Alun Michael, Police and Crime Commissioner for South Wales, talked about the impact of ACEs at the Cardiff conference, explaining how someone who had suffered four or more ACEs, such as witnessing domestic violence or a parent in prison, was far more likely to fall into crime and violence themselves, drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy or become victims of violence themselves.

Dr Sophie Hallett, Research Associate with Cardiff University, gave an example of how easily children can be groomed by abusers.

One young woman described how it had begun when she was 13.

He treated me like a queen and said he loved me and I believed him. My mistake was to tell him I had been abused and things weren’t good at home and that’s when he started pulling the strings.”

Delegates were able to take part in a range of workshops including prevention through education, the sexual exploitation of boys and safeguarding in the NHS.

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