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CSE NI: Northern Ireland now has an opportunity to “lead the way”

The current focus on child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Northern Ireland gives a real opportunity for the country to “lead the way” on tackling the issue, said Dr Helen Beckett (BASPCAN NI/University of Bedfordshire).

Dr Beckett warned delegates at NIASW/ BASPCAN conference on CSE that people must not be in denial about the sexual exploitation of children and pretend it was not happening. She also maintained that primary school children should be educated about the danger of sexual exploitation.

 "Assume CSE is happening in your area unless you can prove otherwise. Don't pretend it doesn't exist because you haven't seen it", she said.

Dr Beckett said practitioners must realise that child sexual exploitationand the sexual abuse of children are the same thing and that those who sexually exploit young people use their difference in power and status, which can be in terms of age, gender, intellect, physical strength or economic power, to exert control.

She warned that the current economic downturn could be making young people even more vulnerable to sexual exploitation because victims usually receive "something" in return for sexual activity.

Almost one in seven social workers in Northern Ireland identify CSE as an issue of concern, according to Dr Beckett's 2011 research, entitled Not a world away: the sexual exploitation of children and young people in Northern Ireland). Concerns were most often first identified when children were aged 12-15.

The research found social workers were only marginally more concerned about sexual exploitation among children in care than those not in care, 14% and 11% respectively. However, concern about risk did appear to vary according to placement type with 40% concerned about residential; 11% home and 5% foster care.

As well as adult abusers, "peer on peer" abuse is emerging as a growing trend.

There is currently no offence of child sexual exploitation, but a range of offences are covered by Part three of the Sexual Offences (NI) Order 2008. If a child is under 13, there is no defence and higher tariffs available. For children aged 13 - 15, a defence that the accused thought the victim was older is permissible.

Dr Beckett said children often do not say what is happening to them but show by their behaviour and therefore the onus is on professionals to identify the issue and deal with it.

When children are initiating a sex act in exchange for a taxi fare, for example, professionals need to ask why a child thinks selling sex is way to meet their needs.

Though "abuse through prostitution" is usually seen as taking cash for sex, there are other forms, said Dr Beckett, such as such as sex for repaying a debt, often a drugs related debt.

Sexual exploitation of children can also involve a third party prostituting the victim, such as a case in which a child was 'given' by her mother to an older man in exchange for a bottle of vodka.

Dr Beckett said it was vital to tell the stories of those who have been sexually exploited, such as the real life case in which a child who offered sex to men in pubs was revealed to have been abused by her father and passed to other men. "Should we tell these horrific stories? We do young people no favours if we sanitise or shy away from the reality of their abuse," she said.

Commenting on the need to educate children and young children about, Dr Beckett said cases of child sexual exploitation involving children as young as nine or ten were emerging. “There is no point burying our heads in the sand and saying we shouldn't be talking about this at primary school level. We are failing young people if we haven't equipped them before perpetrators start approaching them."

She also urged against a “gender-blind” response to CSE, citing an example of a teenage boy who was returned to a care home dressed only in underpants and a duvet. “If this had been a girl, would more questions have been asked?”, said Dr Beckett.

She also stressed that victims of sexual exploitation were not always missing: "Some children are gone for only 45 minutes."

View Dr Beckett’s presentation to the 2013 NIASW/ BASPCAN conference here