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CSE NI: Protection has to extend to witnesses and bystanders

Identifying the early signs of child sexual exploitation can be the best way to prevent abuse of young people, an organisation working with young people said in an address to delegates at the NIASW/ BASPCAN CSE conference.

Carlene Firmin MBE, Head of the London-based MsUnderstood Partnership, called for better youth service provision and “spaces for conversation” to encourage victims to reveal what is going on in their lives. She added a "whole school" approach to gender equality, greater focus on sexuality and identity via Personal and Social Health Education and a better response to school absence could help prevent young people from being exploited.

Ms Firmin added victims can often be "hidden" in other services, such as those dealing with youth violence or substance abuse and urged professionals to take a closer look at the young people using these services.

She also highlighted a trend of girls in street gangs being sexually exploited by gang leaders and urged protection in court cases bringing perpetrators to trial to be extended to witnesses and bystanders as well as victims.

"Sometimes the way to protect children is to prevent exploitation in the first place", said Ms Firmin, who is well-known for her work with “gang-involved” girls.

The growth of social media and other networks presents new challenges for professionals, said Ms Firmin, because it allows perpetrators to target victims even when they have been moved to another area.

Professionals also needed to be aware of gender identity issues in child sexual exploitation, she said, citing a case in which the parents of a young gay man who was groomed for sex by older men were more concerned that he was gay than the sexual exploitation he had endured.

She added more effort needed to be put into disrupting the activities of adult offender through measures such as better monitoring of online spaces, and increased public debate to encourage awareness.

The MsUnderstood Partnership brings together the University of Bedfordshire, Imkaan, and the Girls Against Gangs project to work with young people who experience gender inequality.

View Ms Firmin’s presentation to the 2013 NIASW/ BASPCAN conference here