Belfast Telegraph

So clever are these insidious groomers that the vulnerable teens they prey upon don't even believe that they are really victims of paedophiles

BY CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

Vulnerable young people who have been sexually exploited often don't see themselves as victims as they are showered with compliments and gifts by groomers, according to experts.

The outline of how abuse happens comes after it was revealed that more than 20 young people were allegedly targeted for sexual exploitation across Northern Ireland, the majority of whom were under the care of social services.

Jackie Montgomery, children's services manager at children's charity Safe Choices, described the way young people were targeted and how this leads to a bond between the victim and the abuser.

They can be split in to two groups – young people in the community and online.

"The core thing in all of these children is there is a vulnerability in all of them which the abuser homes in on.

"Abusers exploit those living in care or still at home, targeting an insecurity, such as low self-esteem," she said.

"For those kids within the care system, our experience is that they have several vulnerabilities."

The young person gets caught in a trap as the groomer begins to build a false relationship by making them feel special, particularly if it's a male abuser and a female victim.

"Sometimes the abusers don't have a lot of work to do in terms of grooming the child because they are craving any kind of attention or love.

"It's the same for children groomed online, they're lulled in to a false sense of security. They are told they are beautiful and they think: 'someone loves me'.

"Young men can be just as susceptible to sexual exploitation as girls, we just need to be better at identifying that," Ms Montgomery said.

After the initial bond has been established, in order to maintain the relationship the abuser uses multiple methods to heighten the young person's dependence on them.

Most commonly, they are supplied with alcohol and drugs and in return they are required to perform a sexual act.

"For some of our more vulnerable kids they'll perform a sexual act just for a cigarette.

"The groomer will create a sense of loyalty so they will continue to want to go back for whatever it is the abuser is giving them," she said.

In a bid to gain complete control, often the abuser will buy the victim a mobile phone and top-ups.

The physical act of abuse is then carried out "behind closed doors" in places known to the groomer.

It takes a period of lengthy intervention from groups like Barnardo's to try and change the way in which the young person views their abuser.

Ms Montgomery indicated that one of the main challenges is that sometimes it's difficult for the child to admit that anything is wrong.

"There is that sense of 'he is my boyfriend or my girlfriend, what do you mean there is a risk here?'"

And because the abuser has built up the young person's confidence, when that is removed there is a noticeable gap which has to be filled. "Sometimes, it's one step forward and two back.

"Cognitively they might recognise that they have been exploited but this young person, who has such low self-esteem, has been told how wonderful they are.

"We have to do a lot of work to tell them that this isn't the norm, and that life can be different," Ms Montgomery added.

This all adds to the complexity of the current investigation by the PSNI.

As Detective Superintendent Sean Wright, who's leading the investigation, said: "There is no way they are going to give us a statement to put their boyfriend in jail."

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