Sexual exploitation: the hidden crime

Anonymous children in playground Photo: ITV News

Sexual Exploitation is a hidden crime, one which only hits the headlines when a gang of alleged groomers and paedophiles are arrested or when a gang comes to court.

There are currently four such cases taken place or about to take place in courts across the North West. And today's arrests in Oxfordshire again draw attention to the reality that sexual crimes against children can be criminally organised by criminal profiteers.

Police forces all over the country now have special task forces to deal with the issue of sexual exploitation against children. Cases can involve individuals acting alone online, or gangs acting together underground. Sexual exploitation is moving up the law and order agenda and raising difficult issues about the legal definition of consent after grooming has successfully taken place.

Metropolitan Police Credit: Reuters

The latest figures from Barnardo's suggest the problem is growing. They worked with 1200 victims or potential victims in 2010.

In their recent survey, Cutting them Free, they identified 137 police investigations, involving potential victims of sexual exploitation crimes. Of the 130 prosecutions which had concluded, only 24 had resulted in convictions.

Crimes of sexual exploitation take place in a seedy, hidden world where the boundaries of consent and coercion are often blurred, where drugs and drink make already vulnerable victims unreliable witnesses and where exploitation and power are mistaken by the victim for love and strength.

Intelligence that leads to arrests is difficult to come by , prosecutions problematic and convictions difficult to obtain.

One member of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection agency, CEOP, told me:

There have always been evil profiteering paedophiles.

And they have always sought out the vulnerable children amongst us. What's new is that there are so many vulnerable children.

Children are targeted on-line and through mobile phones and find themselves isolated and trusting strangers when they shouldn't Credit: ITV News

The children who are exploited are often from chaotic homes or have grown up in care and so have low self esteem and loose family ties. Others are targeted on-line and through mobile phones and find themselves isolated and trusting strangers when they shouldn't. They often also mistake early sexual attention for affection.

Beth Stout, a charity worker from Golddigger, an organisation which helps to prevent sexual exploitation, as well as offering support to victims and their families, told me that:

In today's highly sexual society where having a boyfriend and being found attractive are felt to be so important, girls are vulnerable to approaches by groomers. They don't see the dangers.

Today she's running a workshop for schoolgirls in the North west. They are street wise yet vulnerable and sitting on scatter cushions in a top floor meeting room in Sheffield City Centre with sunlight streaming through the window.

One of the girls, 15 year old Susie, is a victim. She has recovered enough to talk to me and tell me how she escaped the early stages of grooming by a group of men who started to sexually exploit her. Her mistake she says was to trust them at the start:

Everyone is vulnerable.

I never thought it could happen to me. But it can happen to anyone.