Belfast Telegraph

Police Chief Constable Matt Baggott faces Stormont grilling over seven-month delay to probe shocking child abuse reports

BY CHRIS KILPATRICK

Police Chief Constable Matt Baggott will be challenged to account for the PSNI’s handling of a major child sexual exploitation investigation which was launched seven months after an alarming report highlighted the imminent risks to vulnerable young people.

He will face a Stormont committee tomorrow to answer questions about the time it took for the probe to be initiated after concerns were raised.

The senior detective leading the investigation — the biggest of its kind ever to take place in Northern Ireland — yesterday accepted failings by the police in tackling the grooming and exploitation of young people.

A report by leading children’s charity Barnardos in November 2011 warned two-thirds of girls in social care were at risk from being groomed, with one in nine of the teenagers polled reporting they had experienced an adult trying to groom them in person or online. Despite the shocking findings, a major police review was not launched until the following June.

On Monday, police said 22 young people — aged between 13 and 18 — had been sexually exploited with around 30 arrests made to date.

A number of individuals have been charged, some with non-sexual offences such as drug crimes.

Most of those targeted lived in residential care homes at the time of incidents but the allegations relate to periods when they were not in the facilities, such as on nights out when they failed to return.

There has been concern and criticism of police due to the delay in launching an overarching investigation following Barnardos report and in making public that inquiry.

Mr Baggott will be asked by MLAs to account for his force’s handling of the investigation when he attends a Stormont committee tomorrow.

“Serious questions need to be asked of the PSNI why after the Barnardos report of October 2011, that highlighted the vulnerability of children in care, the police didn’t review its procedures and historical investigations until June 2012, nearly one year later,” Justice Committee chair Paul Givan said.

“The public is rightly horrified at the scale of abuse which has taken place and will be concerned the police failed to connect the dots when these cases were previously investigated and prevalence of this crime highlighted by the Barnardos report.”

Mr Givan said MLAs would be seeking assurances from the Chief Constable that adequate resources will be made available to the investigation team.

The senior officer heading up the current investigation, Detective Superintendent Sean Wright, admitted flaws in the time taken to launch an inquiry after the Barnardos report, which was funded by the Department of Health.

“The arrangements were already in place we felt at that point in time,” he said in a radio interview. “With hindsight had we set up a team like what we have now that would have been a better response at that particular time.

“It’s not that we dismissed or discounted the report, actually that formed part of our original thinking in shaping our review of public protection and has shaped and influenced our thinking that has brought us to the point we are at now.

“It should have started sooner. I can’t dispute that.”

Social workers and a representative from Barnardos are now assisting PSNI detectives.

Police believe some of those involved in the grooming are aligned with paramilitary organisations.

Health Minister Edwin Poots (left) said: “Children are not brought into care on the basis that they have done wrong, they are not guilty of anything, they are not locked up, more often than not they are the wronged party.”

Justice Minister David Ford added: “It is an appalling crime and any child in this situation can be at risk.”

Story so far

Children have been plied with drugs or alcohol and trafficked around Northern Ireland in taxis for sexual exploitation, senior police said. A total of 22 suspected victims have been identified and more than 30 people arrested in a probe into potential organised crime. The PSNI has called in experts — including those involved in a probe into child abuse in Rochdale, Greater Manchester. A senior detective revealed that up to 50 suspects have been identified and arrests made in each case. Some suspected victims went missing 137 times from January 2011 to last summer, when a police probe was launched. Boys and girls have allegedly both been targeted.

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