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30 October, 2017

 Caring better for children, and not forgetting parents

I met a group of young girls aged between 12 and 15 years old. They had been characterised as ‘street prostitutes’. But when I met them, I heard an altogether different story.

I don’t talk about this very often, but when I look back, it was a turning point.  Back in 2009, in my life before Police and Crime Commissioners, I was asked to conduct a piece of research into the difficulties faced by children in Yorkshire trying to access mental health services.  As part of the project, I met a group of about a dozen young girls, aged between 12 and 15 years old. They had been characterised as ‘street prostitutes’. But when I met them, I heard an altogether different story.

They described in detail what we now know as child sexual exploitation and grooming. The way they talked about their lives and experiences will stay with me forever. Unfortunately, their situation is far from unique, as we’ve seen in Rotherham, Oxford, Skipton, Rochdale and other communities over the years. The impact on these young girls was incalculable.  Devastating.  No one word can do it justice.

My reaction was of course immediately on two things, how they could be helped and how it could be stopped. I didn’t know then there was a missing piece of that jigsaw, but I will come onto that later.

So, when I took up my current role in North Yorkshire a few years later, my efforts centred on protecting vulnerable people, especially children. My first priority was to improve victim services across the county. And this included areas such as Harrogate, Ripon and more rural communities. Child sexual exploitation (CSE) can happen to anyone, anywhere, and can be facilitated by social media, our precious smart phones and encrypted communication apps.

To help, North Yorkshire Police has an ongoing investment programme in technology, which is starting to pay dividends. Road safety is improving through the use of technology such as Automated Number Plate Recognition systems and the police are also significantly investing in combining on-the-ground skills and technology to better protect vulnerable people, especially to prevent and investigate crimes such as exploitation and abuse.  For example, the Chief Constable has developed cyber-crime and digital forensics teams.  All of these specialists, and many others besides, play a huge part in tackling this type of crime.  But that in itself isn’t enough.  I have also worked with the Chief Constable to ensure the neighbourhood policing approach we have in Harrogate, the Dales and in every community across North Yorkshire, is maintained as far as possible.  It’s vital because that is where intelligence and information is gathered which can help lead to these types of crimes being uncovered.

Working with partners is crucial too, and indeed there are regular meetings of a specialist team, who cover the whole of North Yorkshire (with a similar team in York) allowing all the right people to sit around a table and make sure victims do not ‘fall through the cracks’, as has happened so frequently in other parts of the country.

I have also taken direct steps to support prevention too, as well as to better support those victims and survivors who have suffered.  Intervening as early as possible in exploitative relationships is important, before abusers build up too much trust.  I commissioned The Children’s Society to help young people who are experiencing or are at risk of CSE, providing direct support to enable them to recognise themselves as victims, increase their resilience and make decisions about the relationships they’re in.  This can be a real challenge sometimes, so is crucial work.

You might remember I mentioned the missing piece of the jigsaw?  Well as a mum of two teenage girls, I am all too aware of the difficulty parents have in recognising worrying behaviour in children, especially their use of technology and what they’re doing online.  The same is true of parents who have children that have been or are being exploited, who need their own kind of specialist support.  That’s why I have also commissioned Parents Against Child Sexual Exploitation (PACE) to employ a dedicated Parent Liaison Officer.  This individual provides direct support to affected parents here in Harrogate and elsewhere, and also raises awareness with other parents about signs to look out for through tools and techniques to help parents talk to their children.

My message today? I will continue to ensure the Chief Constable works to ensure North Yorkshire Police is in the best possible place to be able to tackle these crimes quickly and effectively, prioritise the partnership work we do to make all our young people safer, help parents identify problems where they are able to, and support everyone who has been devastated by these horrible crimes.

But please be aware that no child is immune to abuse.  It can happen behind a closed bedroom door on a tablet, or on a street corner, or anywhere else for that matter.  That’s not to say our children aren’t generally very safe, they are, but we all need to take responsibility to inform ourselves of the signs of abuse and talk to our children about healthy relationships.

More information about the services available in North Yorkshire, and how to access them, is available on my website or google ‘CEOP safety centre’ for detailed advice.