Our girl, 13, was groomed by net predators and raped
A COUPLE have told how their 13-year-old daughter went from being a happy, straight-A student to being groomed online and sexually exploited.
The parents, who live in an affluent part of Derby, found their daughter had been contacted by six men online and was having "highly sexual conversations" with them – some were texting her to come out of school to perform sex acts. She also told her parents she had been raped.
Police investigated but were unable to get enough evidence to go to court, although they were able to serve a legal notice on one of the men, warning him he could be arrested if he kept contacting her.
Her mum said: "You think that because you live in a nice house in an affluent area, you have a good job and your children are loved, that this will never happen to them. That's what we thought and we were wrong."
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p>In the first of a series of articles about the work of Safe and Sound Derby, a charity which helps children and young people who are being, or are at risk of being, sexually exploited, Nicola Allen talks to a couple whose daughter fell victim to paedophiles on the internet.
Online grooming was an unknown concept to parents John and Julia.
That was until two years ago, when their teenage daughter became a victim. Now they are fully aware of the dangers of the internet.
When their daughter Sarah was just 13 years old they discovered that she had been having highly sexual conversations on Facebook with up to six older men.
John also discovered text messages on his daughter's phone from older men asking her to come out of school and perform sex acts on them.
The most awful moment for the couple came when Sarah told Julia that she had been raped.
John said: "This whole ordeal has just shocked and horrified us – you can't believe that it could happen to you. I didn't even know what grooming was before all of this."
In her first couple of years at secondary school, Sarah was a straight-A student and there were no signs of what was to come.
John said: "She was as good as gold but then her attitude started to change, although it seemed like nothing major and just the kind of behaviour you would expect from a teenager.
"It was in her third year at school that things really started to change. She was quite disrespectful towards us, although she never did anything like staying out late and was always back within the time limits that we set for her, give and take the odd half hour.
"She never ran away or went missing and was never absent from school."
It was during the Christmas holidays in 2009-10 that their elder daughter alerted them to the conversations that Sarah was having on Facebook with older men.
John said: "The conversations she was having with older men were horrendous. It's hard to say how many men there were – it may have been five or six – and there were two or three she was having conversations on Facebook with on a daily basis. We don't know how long this had been going on. Her sister is older and she was horrified and shocked at what was being said.
"We sat Sarah down and questioned her and she was very dismissive and said it was just somebody on Facebook she had been talking to, as if it didn't matter.
"We stopped her going on Facebook and changed the password on our computer so she couldn't log in and we honestly thought that would be the end of it."
It was the following April that Sarah's behaviour began to change again and it was during this period that she told Julia she had been raped in a park in Derby.
Julia said: "She told me that it had happened six months ago. I remembered the night vividly.
"She had come home on a Saturday night. She came in and ran straight upstairs and went into the shower, which was quite unusual for her.
"We didn't see her after that and she went to bed. I just thought that maybe she'd had an argument with a friend.
"She said she didn't tell me at the time because she thought that I would shout."
Julia and John were both horrified.
John said: "I just wanted to rip that person's head off, I just thought, she is my daughter – how could anyone do that to her?
"We felt helpless. She's spoken to my wife about the attack but not to me. We don't know if the person who raped her was someone she met online or if that person knew someone she met online. There was definitely a connection because she said he knew her name."
Julia said Sarah had already started using Facebook at the time of the rape.
She said: "At that time we weren't aware of the conversations she was having. Our belief is that this man knew of our daughter through her contacts on Facebook."
In the summer of 2010, Sarah's school referred her to Safe and Sound Derby because of concerns over her behaviour.
This is a charity that supports victims of child sexual exploitation and their families, as well as young people who are at risk of being sexually exploited.
It was at this time that John suffered a breakdown and had to take time off work.
A meeting was held between John, Julia and Sarah, Safe and Sound Derby and child protection services.
John said that during the meeting Sarah told them the name of a man she had been involved with.
He said: "The police issued him with a harbourer's warning that meant he couldn't see her until she turned 16."
But John was still worried about his daughter and discovered text messages on her mobile phone, which she left in the car, from another older man. He said: "He was asking her to come out of school and perform sex acts on him.
"It was only now that we were coming to understand what grooming was and we could link all of the information together. There were odd messages on her phone and she would claim that they were from someone's uncle.
"At one stage we even considered emigrating, but why should these men force us into doing something like that?"
John believes that more should be done to educate parents and young people about grooming. He said: "I would just say to all parents out there, don't think it can't happen to you and your children. There needs to be more education in schools about grooming and child sexual exploitation so that people are aware of it and signs can be spotted before major issues develop.
"Safe and Sound Derby have helped us and our daughter so much and things for us are much better now. Our daughter is not classed as being at risk any more but she still sometimes struggles to realise the dangers of the internet."
Julia wants people to understand how clever the perpetrators are.
She said: "It is so difficult to prosecute them. They make their victims think everything is their idea, as if it's their choice. They will make a suggestion like 'oh wouldn't it be nice to go to a hotel', then their victim will book into a hotel with them and because the victim believes it was their choice they don't realise that they are being groomed and controlled.
"I just don't want parents to become complacent."
Now that John knows more about grooming and how perpetrators operate, he has several theories as to how his daughter became an easy target. He said: "She was bullied, she has very low self-esteem and this all made her vulnerable. It seems as though she was just desperate for a boyfriend and to be loved and her parents' love just wasn't enough."
Julia wants parents to realise that children from all backgrounds are at risk of being groomed.
She said: "Unfortunately, you think that because you live in a nice house in an affluent area, you have a good job and your children are loved that this will never happen to them. That is what we thought and we were wrong.
"Child sexual exploitation is often portrayed in the media as being about children from care homes or those who are socially deprived.
"But this means that the majority of people think it will never happen to them or their children.
"We can't change what's happened to our daughter but if by telling our story, we can change things for another parent, then it's worth it."
To protect their identities, John, Julia and Sarah are not their real names.
WARNING SIGNS AND WHERE TO GET HELP
THERE are a number of warning signs that could suggest that a child is being, or is at risk of being, sexually exploited. These include:
Going missing from home or school
Going out late at night and not returning until morning
Not attending school or being excluded from school
Being picked up in cars by unknown adults
Having an older boyfriend or girlfriend
Unexplained money, mobile phone credit or a new mobile phone
Changes in behaviour, for example becoming secretive
Becoming hostile towards family members or carers
Chatting to strangers online
Having sexually transmitted infections
Involvement in criminal activity
If you are worried about a child who lives in Derby:
If you believe that a child is at immediate risk and in need of protection then you should call the police on 999. Alternatively, for advice when the child is not in immediate need of protection, you can call the police on 0345 123 33 33.
Children's social care First Contact Team will talk about any worries you may have about a child. From 9am to 5pm they be can contacted on 01332 641172. At all other times your concerns can be discussed with Careline on 01332 711250.
You can also contact Safe and Sound Derby on 01332 362120 for more information on child sexual exploitation.
Please, do not keep your concerns to yourself.