Page last updated at 06:05 GMT, Monday, 10 May 2010 07:05 UK
Investigating child sex exploitation in Shropshire

Andy Giddings
By Andy Giddings
BBC Shropshire

Children generic image
BBC Shropshire uncovered cases of girls being exploited for sex by gangs

Telford & Wrekin Council and West Mercia Police are working with 40 children thought to be victims or targets of sex exploitation in the Telford area.

I was first told about this issue around 12 months ago.

I was chatting to Mark Berry, from the Sanctuary group in Wellington while waiting to do an interview.

He mentioned he was concerned about teenage girls being groomed by criminals in Telford and used for sex.

Close to home

Like a lot of people, I'd always assumed that sex trafficking involved girls being brought in from Eastern Europe, not girls from our own county.

When I heard that Telford police were also looking into the issue, led by Detective Chief Inspector Alan Edwards, I decided it was time to have a proper look into the story.

It appeared it was happening all over again right before our eyes
Andy Giddings

Researching it was hard at first, because there's still very little information out there and it's not obvious which groups or government agencies have responsibility for this.

DCI Edwards pointed me to some articles online and suggested I get in touch with a few people, including the Coalition for the Removal of Pimping in Leeds.

When I travelled up to Leeds in early February I found that the stories I was being told here were familiar ones. And they were being heard all over the country.

Grooming young girls

The common story was that young girls were being approached by slightly older boys who would befriend them, offer them gifts and play the part of their boyfriend.

They then introduce the girls to older men and, either through threats, gifts, powers of persuasion or drugs and alcohol, they persuade them to have sex with these men. I was told the Dutch authorities called this the "loverboy" process.

The girls are groomed to think this is normal behaviour and that their "boyfriends" love them, and many find it hard to break out of this illusion. They are also often turned against their own families and given new mobile phones, to contact their "boyfriends".

It soon became clear though, that there just isn't enough known about the scale of the problem.

CROP'S chair Hilary Wilmer told me that their small team had spoken to more than 400 families in the last three or four years. Barnardo's produced a report last year saying it was dealing with 609 victims. Yet, they would all accept that they're just scratching the surface of this issue.

There are other people trying to do something about this. In Derby there is a woman called Sheila Taylor who's the chair of the National Working Group for Sexually Exploited Children and Young People.

Sheila Taylor has been looking into the issue for the last 10 years - but she surprised me by saying our interview was the first she'd ever done.

Taylor attempts to coordinate the work done by charities, councils and the police all around the country. But, she says that some areas take the problem far more seriously than others. In some parts of the country there is even a denial that child sex exploitation exists.

Staying safe in Telford

I also spent a couple of nights out in Wellington, watching the work done by the Sanktuary group.

Sanktuary is a church organisation which meets every Saturday, offering people leaving clubs and bars a safe, relaxing place to unwind before they make their way home. I was met there by a local mother who believed her daughter was targeted.

The mother said she often saw the men responsible parked there on Saturday nights. But that night there were police cars parked in the spaces often used.

Later though we spotted a group of young girls staggering out of a club and walking straight past a row of waiting taxis. We followed them and saw them approached by a group of young men outside another bar.

The hope is that by talking about the issues and warning people of the dangers, we'll go some way to stopping these crimes from happening
Andy Giddings

The mother claimed these were the same men who had targeted her daughter. It seemed it was happening again right before our eyes.

A couple of weeks later the mother agreed to be interviewed herself and one thing that impressed me was how she drew strength from her faith.

She was also willing to forgive the men who had targeted her daughter. But, it was also very clear that better awareness of the issue was needed. The mother admitted at first she didn't know who to turn to.

'Turning a stone'

We decided to approach Telford and Wrekin council about setting up a joint awareness campaign. We agreed to produce a set of information leaflets, along with an information line - operated by the BBC.

Along with our series of radio broadcasts, we aimed to get as much information out to there as possible, for both young people and their parents.

One of the Telford and Wrekin Council team, looking after victims, said it was like "turning a stone" - every time you turn it, there is more information hidden underneath and once you start looking into the subject, you realise what a big issue it is. We decided to go with that as our slogan.

There were more interviews to be done - with the head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre in London; with Barnardo's; with a member of the council's Children Abused Through Exploitation team; and with a woman from the Methodist church in Birmingham who has been researching the issue.

The point was made that this isn't a new problem - it's been going on in this country for years. But, it seems that people are finally starting to sit up and take an interest.

The head of CEOP told me to expect a series of prosecutions over the next year and the woman from the Methodist church suggested that it was like the days when we first started to accept child abuse was happening, or domestic violence. Suddenly people were starting to talk about the issues.

And the hope is that by talking about the issues and warning people of the dangers, we'll go some way to stopping these crimes from happening.




SEE ALSO
Mum reveals how child was groomed
10 May 10 |  TV & Radio
Signs of child sex exploitation
10 May 10 |  Shropshire


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