More than 100 children in Walsall have been assessed as being at risk of sexual exploitation - and some may have already begun to be groomed - a report has revealed.
A total of 102 children have been identified as having some level of risk in a report to the council - 14 have been identified as being at significant risk and 24 children are assessed as being at serious risk, the highest level.
Walsall Children’s Safeguarding Board (WSCB) is now taking drastic and immediate measures to tackle the menace of sexual abuse and exploitation in the borough.
The town council's Head of Safeguarding Carol Boughton, who will present the findings of the report to the council this week, revealed: "Child sexual exploitation is a serious form of sexual abuse and is on the rise.
"Children in exploitative situations and relationships receive something such as gifts, money or affection in return for performing sexual activities or having others perform sexual activities on them.
"Children or young people may be tricked into believing they're in a loving,
consensual relationship. They are invited to parties and given drugs and
alcohol. They are also groomed and exploited online. Paedophiles use a lot of common tactics to manipulate innocent or vulnerable children.
"Some children and young people are brought into the UK especially for the
purposes of sexual exploitation. It can also happen to young people in gangs.
"Children frequently trust their abusers and don't understand that they're being abused. They sometimes depend on their abuser or are often simply too scared to tell anyone what's happening.
"Child sexual exploitation doesn't always involve physical contact and can happen online," she added.
The Department for Education official definition of CSE states that “it is a form of child sexual abuse. It occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator. The victim may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears consensual.”
Walsall Safeguarding Children Board has adopted this definition of sexual
exploitation of children but admitted the issue was a challenging and complex one. However, what is not in question is who is responsible for the exploitation of children - responsibility lies with the perpetrator.
Some children are exploited for criminal reasons by gangs, in particular the risk of involvement in ‘county lines’, and the recognised relationship in some cases between risk of child sexual exploitation and gang association.
There is no legal definition of ‘county lines’ or criminal exploitation. County
lines relates to the supply of class A drugs - primarily crack cocaine and heroin - from an urban hub into rural towns or county locations. This is carried out by a group which may not necessarily be affiliated as a gang, but which has
developed networks across boundaries to access and exploit existing drug markets in these areas.
A key feature of county lines drug supply is the use of a branded mobile phone
line which is established in the marketplace and promoted throughout the
existing customer base. Group messages are sent out to customers to advertise the availability of drugs and orders are placed back on the phone.
An Ofsted report published in September 2017 recommended that Children's Services: “Improve the response to all children at risk of child sexual exploitation, making sure that all assessments, safety plans and interventions are of a consistently good quality.”
Children’s Services has now appointed a specialist Principal Exploitation Reduction Officer to carry out the work.
Ms Boughton added: "Supporting sexually exploited children and disrupting perpetrators is a complex process and requires a response from a range of different organisations.
"We recognise that there can be a tendency to focus on victims and through multi-agency work we will share intelligence to inform disruption and prosecution of perpetrators by our colleagues in the police."
Every individual child who is assessed as being at serious (high) or significant
(medium) risk of harm from CSE attends a multi-agency sexual exploitation meeting (MASE). This meeting discusses how best to protect the child, sharing information and intelligence, and is designed to identify specific actions relating to the exploitation the child is experiencing.
They are attended by the police, child, parents or carer, social worker, school or college, health and any other professional who can offer support.
"The impact of exploitation on children has far-reaching effects. Exploited young people are at increased risk of rape, sexual assault, physical violence,
sexually transmitted infections, trafficking and pressure to use drugs and alcohol," said Ms Boughton.
"CSE can impact on every aspect of a child/young person’s life, such as physical and mental health; education and training; family relationships and friends and social relationships. How they view others and the impact can go far beyond childhood into adulthood and affect their relationships with any children of their own they may have in the future."
Between March and June 169 children were reported missing. There were 87 individual children, of which 32 per cent (28) repeatedly went missing and 61 per cent (53) were reported missing for the first time. The number of repeated incidents as a percentage of all referrals was 49 per cent.
During the autumn of 2018, West Midlands Police will be adopting a new guidance policy in respect of dealing wwith reports of missing people. As a result, the number of children currently reported missing is likely to increase. However, it will mean that the information available will be more accurate and, in turn, interventions can be made much earlier.
Figures relating to children who have been brought into the UK specially for sexual exploitation purposes have been obtained from the National Crime Agency. This includes foreign nationals coming into the country as well as Walsall children who are moved internally. Walsall figures have increased from a total of 10 throughout 2016 to 12 as of June 2018.
"We aim to tackle those that perpetrate abuse and will be seeking to do this through the disruption and prosecution of abusers which we hope will deter others," added Ms Boughton.
"We know that for some children who suffer exploitation in childhood this does not end just because they reach the age of 18. We know that those that suffer abuse as a child can continue to be exploited as an adult and can go on to endure chronic mental health issues throughout their lives."
Walsall Council's Scrutiny and Performance Panel will discuss the issue at a meeting this week.