Belfast Telegraph

Police investigating 718 cases of child abuse in Northern Ireland

And calls to local NSPCC helpline show sharp rise

By Adrian Rutherford

Police are investigating more than 700 claims of child abuse in Northern Ireland, it can be revealed.

Officers are probing 718 "live" cases where the victim was aged under 18.

The figure is thought to include a number of historic allegations relating to children's care homes.

It comes as a leading charity revealed it has seen the number of calls to a specialist helpline jump by almost a quarter in the last year.

The issue of child abuse has been in the headlines throughout 2014. A State inquiry into historical abuse in Northern Ireland, chaired by retired judge Sir Anthony Hart, opened in January.

The inquiry, which has so far been contacted by 524 individuals, has already heard harrowing testimonies from victims.

And in November a report estimated that up to 145 children were at significant risk of exploitation in Northern Ireland.

The extent of the PSNI's child abuse inquiries was revealed after a Freedom of Information request.

Police said the 718 cases were live, meaning they were under active investigation.

The number is understood to include both current and historic allegations.

Neil Anderson from NSPCC Northern Ireland said the media focus on child abuse may have persuaded people to come forward.

He revealed that a specialist helpline has seen a significant rise in calls in the last year.

"The NSPCC recently established a helpline team here in Belfast," he said. "Current call figures show that of the 924 calls made by people in Northern Ireland to the helpline in 2013/14, 536 (58%) were deemed so serious that they were referred to social services and PSNI for further intervention.

"The numbers are growing, with 23% (174) more calls made to the helpline from people in Northern Ireland in 2013/14 than during the previous year."

SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly, who sits on the Policing Board, said the figures were appalling.

"It is extremely worrying to learn the scale of abuse," she said.

"Unfortunately in some ways it shouldn't surprise us. We have heard terrible stories in the news about this issue.

"I'd be worried that a lot more victims are suffering in silence and are not included in these figures. The safeguarding of children is very important and we have to work together to make sure we are doing everything we can to tackle abuse."

In November it was revealed that police forces in England and Wales were investigating more than 7,000 live cases of child sex abuse.

Over 1,800 investigations are active in London, with West Yorkshire police probing 1,100 allegations.

Concerns over child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland were raised in a report commissioned by Edwin Poots while he was Health Minister and published in November.

The paper by Professor Kathleen Marshall revealed paramilitaries were using fear and intimidation to sexually exploit children.

It also uncovered cases involving the military, revealing that soldiers had been disciplined for smuggling girls into two different barracks in the last three years.

Her review estimated between 100 and 145 children were at significant risk of exploitation. However, most people consulted by the inquiry said what is known is likely to be the tip of the iceberg.

In September 2013 the PSNI began a major investigation into the sexual exploitation of children and young people who went missing from care.

At the time Mr Poots said the abuse was on a scale not seen before in Northern Ireland.

Background

The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (HIA) is examining allegations of child abuse in children's homes and other residential institutions between 1922 and 1995. It is the biggest child abuse public inquiry ever held in the UK, having been contacted by 524 people who said they were abused in childhood. Most complainants are from the UK, 65 are from Australia and 26 from the Irish Republic. The HIA inquiry was set up by the First and Deputy First Minister in May 2012. Its aim is to establish if there were "systemic failings by institutions or the state in their duties towards those children in their care".

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