PSNI warn child sexual exploitation may be ‘hidden in plain sight’ amid Easter crackdown

A Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) patrol car equipped with Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras in Belfast.
Credit: Niall Carson / PA Images
Police will be on patrol around the North Coast rasing awareness of child sexual exploitation. Credit: PA

Parents have been warned to be extra vigilant about the risks of child sexual exploitation during the Easter holidays.

Police in Northern Ireland have written to families through schools, and will be patrolling the holiday hotspot of the North Coast this Easter in a nationwide crackdown.

The PSNI is warning that such crimes may be hidden in plain sight as the force raises awareness of the signs that a child may be vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

Previous efforts have targeted the night-time economy sector.

But PSNI Chief Inspector Kerry Brennan, who is leading the operation, says “this crime doesn’t just happen under the cover of darkness”.

She added: “Children often don’t even realise they are at risk or that they are being exploited.

“Perpetrators of these crimes are incredibly manipulating and part of the grooming process can be to treat their child victims - by buying them gifts or bringing them to fun places they may otherwise not have the opportunity to go to.

“This is why it’s so important to arm our hospitality and entertainment sector and the wider public with the knowledge of how to spot the signs and the confidence to report their suspicions to the police.

“We have a dedicated team of officers who are trained to disrupt and bring offenders to justice. If you feel something is not right, please let us know - you will not be wasting our time.”

Local neighbourhood policing teams, alongside officers from the dedicated Chield Sexual Exploitation Team will be on the streets of Portrush and Portstewart, with many people expected to flock to the popular seaside towns.

Examples of the warning signs people are being asked to look for are:

  • Adults befriending young people

  • Adults accompanying young people and acting in an intimate way with them

  • Adults who are accompanying young people who look to be confused or distressed

  • Adults buying alcoholic drinks for someone expected to be under 18

  • Adults booking into a local hotel with a young person at odd times of the day/night

  • Adult guests requesting a room that is isolated

  • Adult guests accessing pornography in a room where you think a child may be.

According to the PSNI, there are currently seven children on the Child Sexual Exploitation risk register within the Northern Trust area, which encompasses Portrush and Portstewart.

There has also been a reduction of a further 10 children at risk over the last 12 months as a result of proactive investigations and multi-agency interventions.

However, police believe the risks to young people may be heightened by perpetrators using the guise of the busy Easter period to hide their criminal activity in plain sight.

In February of this year, the PSNI had identified 37 children across Northern Ireland who were at risk and had found that children as young as 11 were being sexually exploited in pubs, clubs and hotels.

They fear that is only the tip of the iceberg as such crimes often go unreported.

The letter from the PSNI to schools across the region focuses on risks posed to young people online and urges parents to have “open and honest” conversations about the dangers.

“When our children go outside to play, we ask who they are playing with and what they are doing. We need to consider doing the same thing for when our children engage online,” the letter states.

“Are they speaking to somebody within a game or on social media that is a genuine friend of theirs, or is it an adult impersonating a child to try and groom your child in some way?”

Anyone who is concerned about a child’s welfare and thinks they may be being exploited can report it to the PSNI on 101, or 999 in an emergency, or via Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.