'This is child abuse and it is unacceptable', says Safe and Sound Derby chief executive Nathalie Walters
In the second of a series of articles about the work of Safe and Sound Derby, Aly Walsh talks to chief executive Nathalie Walters about the charity's role in helping young people who are being sexually exploited.
HELPING victims of child sexual exploitation to escape the predators who groom them is one of the biggest challenges facing Safe and Sound Derby.
Those caught up in this so-called "hidden crime" often do not even see themselves as victims because of the sophisticated techniques used by the perpetrators.
As chief executive of Safe and Sound Derby, which supports victims of child sexual exploitation, Nathalie Walters says it is hard for people to understand why it is so difficult for victims to exit the cycle of abuse.
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She says: "A lot of people would probably just wonder why the young person didn't just stop seeing the perpetrator but it's not that easy.
"The victim often feels they can't leave because they are terrified of the perpetrator or perpetrators.
"It may be that they have threatened to harm them or members of their family if they don't have sex with them. There are cases throughout the UK where the threats have involved children being burned with cigarettes and girls being held at knifepoint. Often, perpetrators will video the sexual act and then threaten to put it on the internet if the child doesn't comply."
Ms Walters also believes that there needs to be more understanding about how people – including boys and young men – become victims in the first place and how to identify them.
She says: "Ultimately, any child could be at risk of being sexually exploited but there are those who are more vulnerable. There are all kinds of things that can make young people more susceptible to this abuse; it may be that they have had experience of domestic violence or have been abused in the past, or they may have recently experienced the death of a close relative or friend.
"The young people involved may have low confidence or low self-esteem and they are flattered by these individuals who promise them so much. They are so trusting and they enjoy the attention the perpetrators give them, even if it is negative."
Child sexual exploitation can take many forms, ranging from the perpetrator who makes their victim believe they are their "boyfriend", to grooming by group of men like in the Operation Retriever case – a major police investigation in Derby which involved at least 27 young victims.
Ms Walters says: "With those who believe the perpetrator is their boyfriend it could be that he will draw the victim in by treating them like an adult and giving them gifts and then force them to have sex with his friends.
"In other cases, it may be that a perpetrator will just approach a young person and invite them to a party, and then when the young person is at that party, they are raped or sexually assaulted. There will always be people who think that the young people involved are partly to blame because they get involved with the perpetrators.
"But these are children; they won't always see the risks they face. We need to be clear that the perpetrators are to blame, this is child abuse and it is totally unacceptable.
"The impact of sexual exploitation on a child and their family is devastating."
Since April, the charity has been working with 117 young people who are at risk of or who have been or are being sexually exploited and each one of those young people will be advised about healthy relationships, safe choices, and given help with coming to terms with their own situation and then making decisions about what to do next.
As one young person once told their worker: "If I saw someone suffering the way I did I'd send them to Safe and Sound. They have really helped me; I am stronger, more confident and feel better within myself."
Ms Walters says: "We also do a lot of work in schools to try to warn young people about the dangers and how they can stay safe. We found out recently that one of the pupils who had attended a session we did stopped her friend from meeting up with a man who had approached her when she was in town."
Educating children and young people about the dangers of the internet is another challenge facing Safe and Sound Derby.
Ms Walters says: "Some of the young people we work with might have over a thousand friends on Facebook and we talk to them about this and about what kind of information they are sharing over the internet. If they are getting negative attention, or being made to do things that they aren't comfortable with, then they need to tell a friend, parent or teacher.
"We can't stop young people from using the internet because it is such a useful tool and a part of everyday life, so we have to educate them about how to use it safely."
Victims or those at risk of being sexually exploited are referred to Safe and Sound Derby by various agencies including police and children's services. Ms Walters says the charity has been involved in many harrowing cases but there have also been plenty of positive outcomes, too.
She says: "We had a girl who jumped from a first-floor window to escape her abuser, we've worked with young people who have been trafficked to other towns and cities by their perpetrators and a boy who had arranged to meet with a stranger he was speaking to online.
"Some of the cases are horrific and it can be hard for our staff to handle at times. But we have had some really positive stories too: a couple of young people we've worked with have gone on to university, and a number have completed college courses.
"Three of our young people are involved in a national project where they are training to become health advocates to support other young people affected by sexual exploitation, making sure they get the best possible support from health services.
"We persevere, give young people time. We had one girl who was being abused, who initially didn't want to work with us. One of our workers kept in contact with her, visiting her regularly for over a year, until she agreed to let us help her. She said it was because we never gave up."