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Training needed to spot signs of child sex exploitation, NIASW urges

Professionals need better training to spot signs of child sexual exploitation, the Northern Ireland Association of Social Workers (NIASW) has said.

The warning comes in the wake of more than 30 arrests made by police in Northern Ireland investigating allegations of abuse in care homes. Up to 150 men may have been involved in the targeting of at least 22 young people, aged between 13 and 18, for abuse, according to media reports.

Most of those were girls, but a few boys may also have been involved.

The men under investigation are mainly in their 20s, though some are said to be older, including one suspect in his early sixties. It is not believed they are part of a gang.

Carolyn Ewart, Manager of NIASW, said: “Sadly we hear of allegations such as this too often.

“Those who seek to exploit and abuse children in this way will employ a range of methods to prevent discovery, including threatening the young people involved if they tell.

“However, there are tell-tale signs and it is vital that social workers and all professionals who work with children know what to look for to help prevent this kind of abuse in the future.

“Social workers do an incredibly difficult job and it is vital that they get all the support and training they need.”

NIASW, together with the British Association for the Study and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (BASPCAN), will next month hold a major conference to highlight the issue.

Called Child Sexual Exploitation, Prevention, Protection and Prosecution, the event will share experience from experts in the field, including police, social workers, barristers and academics.

The current investigation in Northern Ireland is potentially the biggest 'sexual grooming' exploitation case since the Kincora scandal of the 1970s.

Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Edwin Poots said: "Our first priority is to ensure that those who cynically exploit children in this way face the full force of the law and are brought to justice.

"All agencies must continue to demonstrate that robust and sufficient action is being taken to both prevent children and young people being sexually exploited and to deal effectively with those who perpetrate child sexual exploitation."

The majority of the children are alleged to have been abused when they went missing from care homes but it is understood some were living at home with their families and abused when they left their homes.

A Barnardo’s report on the sexual exploitation of children in Northern Ireland, published two years ago, claimed that two thirds of young girls in care homes were at risk of sexual exploitation.

The study, Not a World Away, found 613 recorded sexual offences against 12 to 17-year-olds in 2010/11.

 More than half – 56% – of all victims of sexual offences in Northern Ireland were under the age of 18.

In her foreword to the report, Lynda Wilson, Director of Barnardo’s Northern Ireland, said: “The research confirms what we have long suspected; child sexual exploitation is occurring in villages, towns and cities across Northern Ireland, mostly behind closed doors. It affects both young females and young males, most frequently those in their early teenage years.”

Since the report, work has taken place among agencies to address the issue.

Education Secretary Michael Gove recently announced reforms aimed at reducing the risk of looked after children being sexually exploited, including reducing the number of children placed in homes out of their local area.