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CSE NI: Child Sexual Exploitation will not be stopped by Police alone, NIASW conference hears

Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) will not be stopped by one agency alone, but needs all of them working together. This was the clear message from a major conference in Northern Ireland.

The event was held in the wake of a recent announcement by Health Minister Edwin Poots of an independent inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in the country, although it was first planned by NIASW in January 2013. More than 30 people have been arrested as part of a major police investigation into allegations of sexual exploitation of young people in Northern Ireland.

The NIASW/ BAPSCAN (British Association for the Study and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect) conference attracted hundreds of delegates from across the country. It brought together a range of experts from academia to the criminal justice system to explore themes of ‘Prevention, Protection and Prosecution’.

Chair of the newly established Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI), Hugh Connor, opened the conference by saying: “The Safeguarding Board is only going to be effective by working together.”

Mr Connor also queried how best to ensure consistency of approach in a de-centralised system such as that in Northern Ireland, saying: “We have to build connections between services, we know from research that these children are often in need of a number of services, such as mental health, sexual health services, alcohol and addictions. This is not something that can be tackled by Police on their own.”

Created in September 2012, the Board’s main responsibilities are to oversee child safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children in Northern Ireland, including undertaking case management reviews. It has a 27-member board across social services, police, probation, youth services, health, and education.

Mr Connor said that Child Sexual Exploitation is a priority for SBNI, alongside the related issue of internet safety.

Referring to the media interest in the on-going CSE inquiry, Mr Connor said that when bringing information into the public domain, he had wanted the reality to “be told and told clearly”.

He hoped the public would get the message that boys get exploited too as well as girls and while children within the care system are disproportionately represented in cases of CSE, children living within the community can also be vulnerable to exploitation.

Mr Connor hailed the NIASW/ BASPCAN conference as a chance to debate the issues properly and to determine the best way to get messages out to the public.

He revealed that Minister Poots has asked the Safeguarding Board to conduct a “thematic review looking at 22 cases”, and they are currently in discussion with the department about ways forward.

The SBNI have a Strategic Planning Group to look at raising the profile of CSE and how organisations are responding, co-ordinating with The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) who have a UK wide plan to develop consistent policing in this area.

Mr Connor said: “We need to look at the victims but also at the perpetrators and how we can disrupt their activities. It is also important to look at what we need to do in order that prosecutions go forward.”

Mr Connor said there was no single, simple answer to the problem of CSE, and that it occurs in communities and in schools. “Vulnerable children are not unique to the care system, but we have to make sure that the care system is safe for children”, he said.

Delegates also heard from young people themselves, in a performance of poetry and music introduced by Manager of Barnardo’s Northern Ireland Safe Choices Service Jacqui Montgomery-Devlin.

The services works directly with children and young people who are being or are at risk of being sexual exploited. In November 2011 Safe Choices launched its research into the issue ‘Not a world away’.

The Northern Trust then approached the service to undertake a project called “Breaking the Cycle”, which uses artwork, graffiti boards, singing and drama to give young people a means of expressing their own experience as well as educating other young people about the risks of CSE.

Four of the 30 young people from the group performed at the conference.