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True scale of NI child sexual exploitation is unknown, says report


Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan

Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan

Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan

Child sexual exploitation is happening across Northern Ireland's towns, cities and rural communities - but the true scale of the problem has yet to become clear, a major new report has warned.

Published today by Criminal Justice Inspection (CJI) NI, the report has also identified what it has described as "concerning gaps" in how police handle cases which involve child exploitation.

The PSNI said it welcomes the findings and recommendations, stressing it had implemented measures to improve how it tackles the issue.

Jacqui Durkin, Chief Inspector of CJI NI, said child victims of sexual abuse are an "uncomfortable truth and a reality that we must deal with".

"Child sexual exploitation is happening here in our towns, cities and rural communities," she said. "It is child abuse and it can involve children who live with their parents just as much as those who are in care, or have been in care before."

She said that despite "great efforts" made since the 2014 publication of the Marshall Report - an independent inquiry involving various public bodies and authorities looking at child sexual exploitation - more needs to be done to protect children.

"We still do not have a clear picture of the scale and nature of child sexual exploitation occurring in our community," she said.

Ms Durkin said that one of the recommendations in the report is that "problem profiles" should be established by the PSNI, carried out in conjunction with the Department of Justice (DoJ), and include information from health, social services, education and other partners.

"A problem profile will improve understanding of the risks to children from those people who seek to sexually exploit them, and enhance knowledge about what is required to effectively disrupt perpetrators and protect children," she stated.

Ms Durkin also called for a cross-departmental strategic framework to be established within the next six months to support a collaborative response to child sexual abuse and exploitation here.

"Child sexual exploitation is an important issue and given the devastating impact it can have on victims, it requires a strategic joined-up response."

The Chief Inspector said change also needed to be implemented to address gaps in operational police practice identified by the report.

"This inspection found there were many police officers, prosecutors and other professionals working within the criminal justice system who were dedicated and tireless in their efforts to help children at risk of child sexual exploitation," she explained.

"Yet despite this positive work, we found examples where information and intelligence linked to children identified as being at high risk of sexual exploitation had not been recorded on the police system, leaving frontline police officers unaware of the wider risks that existed."

Inspectors also identified inconsistencies in the PSNI approach when dealing with child sexual exploitation as a result of a lack of resources, she added.

Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan said recommendations resulting from the inspection are already being implemented with some fully completed and others in progress.

"The safeguarding and wellbeing of our children and young people in Northern Ireland is a key priority for the PSNI," he said.

"We are committed to delivering a service which meets the needs of victims, supporting them through an often stressful and traumatic experience, and can often continue beyond the criminal justice process," ACC McEwan added.

Belfast Telegraph