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What we need to do now if this probe is to mean anything

By Jim Gamble

Northern Ireland's introduction to home-grown child sexual exploitation last year was as sensational as it was haphazard.

The briefing of journalists before a full multi-agency strategy was in place was foolish. It undermined investigative opportunities and benefited no one but the abusers. They were forewarned and had time to think, hide evidence and intimidate witnesses.

Given this bungling beginning, I held little hope of a review delivering anything beyond rhetoric, but I can now say that I was wrong to be so pessimistic.

To be fair, the Marshall report has managed to put child sexual exploitation in context, and in the specific context of a Northern Ireland still dealing with the legacy of a violent and troubled past.

Kathleen Marshall has refused to exaggerate the links to paramilitaries, instead reinforcing the complexity of this type of child abuse, because that is what child sexual exploitation is: child abuse.

Many parents think child sexual exploitation is something that happens to children in care - other people's children, not theirs - and some people feel more comfortable with the bogeyman version; it's committed by terrorist monsters from our past.

Each misses the point. Child sexual exploitation is committed by all sorts of people, from many walks of life, and some are not much older than the children they abuse.

It's time to consider the recommendations and implement change.

That change must, in my opinion, be led by the safeguarding board, with a strategic approach that eradicates confusion and tackles the competition that exists within the child protection sector.

We now need to do a number of things - drive forward an education initiative that is more than just billboards; help people to understand what to look for and give them information on what to do when they think they've seen it; and listen to young people and then demonstrate we have heard them through what the Assembly and safeguarding board do next.

Finally, the Assembly must embrace these recommendations and resist the temptation to turn these issues into political point-scoring.

Jim Gamble is the former head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection agency (CEOP)

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