Parks, hotels and taxis: The terrifying truth about child exploitation in the Black Country
Parks, hotels, taxis, house parties – just some of the locations where organised sex gangs are targeting vulnerable children in the West Midlands.
But a shocking new report by West Midlands Police, in which the force strongly criticises itself as well as the four Black Country councils, reveals a terrifying lack of information with which to protect vulnerable youngsters. Put simply, there is no way of knowing just how deep the poison runs in our communities.
The processes with which authorities can identify those being abused – or those who are at risk of being abused – simply aren't in place.
In the first six months of last year, concerns were raised on 32,289 occasions where a child may be suffering from or at risk of significant harm through abuse, harm or neglect across the West Midlands.
The number of officers working on abuse and other similar cases has nearly trebled, the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner revealed.
Now 800 officers – up from 300 – are based in the Public Protection Unit.
And David Jamieson called for a 'joined-up approach' to tackle child sex exploitation.
Ane he said Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary has been invited to inspect the unit to see that improvements are being made 'rapidly'.
Mr Jamieson added: "The police take this issue very seriously, that is why we have increased the number of officers working in the Public Protection Unit from 300 to 800 and are working closely with the region's local councils to keep children safe from harm.
"This report poses tough questions that the police and local authorities need to work together on to answer.
"We need a concerted effort and a joined-up approach to tackle child sexual exploitation in the West Midlands.
"The report has been co-ordinated by the police so that we have a better understanding of the child sexual exploitation issues in the region and so that we make sure that our children are protected.
"There are self-recommendations for the police and local authorities in the report. These recommendations are being implemented and need to be enacted in full as soon as possible.
In Wolverhampton, taxi drivers have had licences suspended because alarm bells have been raised about potential abuse. And in Sandwell, fast food takeaways are being monitored for suspects.
Police and councils insist that huge changes have been made since the previously secret report was compiled in October last year.
But the document's blunt comparison to mass abuses seen in Rotherham will strike fear into families across the Black Country.
Police are trying to tackle the problem head-on and have identified nine Black Country 'hotspots' where they believe abuse is taking place.
Dudley, Willenhall, Wolverhampton, Brierley Hill, and Lye are among them. And Rowley Regis, Tipton, Smethwick and Walsall have also seen high numbers of abuse allegations and incidents.
In total, there were thousands of referrals – an allegation of abuse, neglect, absent parenting or unacceptable behaviour – across the Black Country in the first six months of last year.
For the most serious cases of child sexual exploitation, the report reveals that fast food outlets, hotels and taxi firms are being monitored by authorities looking to infiltrate gangs.
But the full scale is not yet known.
The report states: "West Midlands Police has no definitive way of establishing the scale of child sexual exploitation as there is no single marker that is used consistently to enable the full identification of each crime and incident across the Force area where child sexual exploitation has been a contributing factor."
Most sex abuse referrals are centred around the nine hotspots, where authorities have received tip-offs from police, schools and even paramedics.
The report adds: "When looking at the locations of incidents allocated the child sexual exploitation 'special interest marker', the highest volume of incidents have occurred on Birmingham East LPU (48 of 254), followed by Wolverhampton (35/254), Dudley (30/254) and Coventry (27 /254) LPUs (local police units)."
It identifies that offenders are typically Asian (79 per cent) with a large proportion being of Pakistani heritage and likely to be from a Muslim faith background.
They will also typically be aged 17 to 40.
In terms of location, the report added: "There were a total of 42 identified vulnerable locations from previous problem profiles including a number of children's homes and schools where victims of sexual exploitation are targeted and groomed and a number of hotels and parks which are used meet victims of sexual exploitation and subsequently commit offences.
"In addition previous problem profiles dating back to 2010 identified these locations as situated on Birmingham (37 per cent), Dudley (15 per cent), Sandwell (13 per cent), Coventry (six per cent), Walsall (nine per cent), Wolverhampton (eight per cent), and Solihull (seven per cent)."
But, damningly, the report states: "There are significant gaps in research across the West Midlands and the required information available relating to the issue of child sexual exploitation is non-existent, complex or subjective.
Council bosses across the Black Country have come out fighting in the wake of the damning report, insisting changes have been made.
All four local authorities – Dudley, Walsall, Sandwell and Wolverhampton – were criticised in the West Midlands Police document.
A lack of information into the number of at-risk children is the overwhelming criticism of our councils.
And with West Midlands Police comparing the situation to that seen in Rotherham, bosses will be desperate to ensure they are not in danger of overseeing a similar scandal in the Black Country.
Child sexual exploitation is an 'absolute priority' for Wolverhampton City Council, insisted strategic director Linda Sanders.
She outlined a raft of changes made since the report was compiled last October, including a tracker system to monitor cases and sharing of intelligence.
She said: "This is enabling us to better identify potential victims of child sexual exploitation.
"It is an appalling crime that can affect any child, regardless of their social or ethnic background. It involves perpetrators grooming youngsters and emotionally and sexually abusing them.
"As a council, we work closely with West Midlands Police and other partners across the region to safeguard children and young people from sexual exploitation and over the last 12 months have significantly strengthened our policies and procedures to improve data collection, the identification of victims and the way we work with partners to protect them."
Alan Coe, chairman of Wolverhampton Safeguarding Children's Board, added: "Over the last 12 months we have seen significant improvements in the way we assess, monitor and tackle cases of child sexual exploitation in Wolverhampton and work with partners across the region to protect young people from this vile crime."
Dudley Council said a new 'shared regional approach' was making it easier to tackle child sexual exploitation.
Tony Oakman, strategic director for people, said: "This is designed to ensure everyone is working in the same way and is able to share necessary information to identify children at risk as well as offenders.
"We're currently establishing a dedicated child sexual exploitation team and also planning a multi-agency safeguarding hub for the borough which will work with our partners in order to identify children at risk as early as possible."
"Also, through our regional awareness campaign, See Me, Hear Me, we have been increasing people's understanding of child sexual exploitation and how to spot the warning signs in children."
Sandwell has child abuse 'hotspots' which police and the local authority are monitoring in Smethwick, Rowley Regis and Tipton.
Bosses are working with fast-food outlets, taxi firms and hotels to identify any risks.
Jan Britton, chief executive of Sandwell Council, said: "We are working with other councils and agencies including the police to understand the scale of the problem to make sure we protect children and punish the perpetrators.
"In Sandwell we now screen all vulnerable children and young people to identify whether they may be at risk of sexual exploitation. All council employees are undergoing training in how to identify child sexual exploitation and what to do if they suspect anything.
"Child sexual exploitation will not be tolerated in Sandwell."
Walsall Borough Council's executive director of children's services, David Haley, added: "The release of the report highlights the cross-working practices and partnerships that are needed to effectively tackle child sexual exploitation in the borough.
"Protecting children against sexual exploitation is a priority for all local authorities and for us here in Walsall.
"Our commitment to tackle child sexual exploitation is ongoing and since this 2014 report was collated, new and shared intelligence is informing how we address it.
"By working closely with police and other partners, we have strengthened our policies and procedures to collect data and identify children and young people at risk."
"Generally, there is a lack of evidence in relation to the numbers of the children and young people who have been sexually exploited across the West Midlands and it is not possible to define the scale.
"West Midlands Police is not effectively sharing its information to children classified as 'absent' with local authorities and is not capturing information relating to home debriefs by local authorities of found missing children."
West Midlands Police insisted the force continued to 'take great steps' into investigating child sexual exploitation.
Assistant Chief Constable Carl Foulkes said: "We are seeing more victims coming forward to report abuse, knowing we will take their allegations seriously and treat them sensitively and respectfully.
"Tackling child sexual exploitation is at the heart of everything we do as a force working closely with our local authorities across the area and the respective Children's Safeguarding Boards.
"This work has led to the creation of multi-agency safeguarding hubs and more effective joint responses to child protection issues. Since this paper was produced, the force has invested heavily in its resources to tackle child sexual exploitation putting significant numbers of specialist officers into its Public Protection Unit which provides us with robust investigation teams and more capacity to deal with the more complex cases. "
The report also breaks down victim characteristics and states that 87 per cent are female, seven per cent male (with the rest unknown), with ages ranging from one to 19 years of age.
The average age of a victim is 15, with 25 per cent of victims being that age.
Where ethnicity of victims has been recorded, 54 per cent are white European, followed by 19 per cent Afro-Caribbean and eight per cent Asian.
West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson admitted the report raised 'difficult questions'.
He added: "The West Midlands like every area across the country has child sexual exploitation issues. It is something that the police, local councils and I recognise and are working hard to tackle.
"We are not afraid to be critical of ourselves, especially if it means that we find out more about what the issues are and children are safer as a result. Crimes stay hidden if we duck and shy-away from the tough questions.
"This report raises difficult issues, but the way to tackle hidden crimes is to bring them out into the open and that is what we are doing. It is only by facing up to these issues that we will protect potential victims and bring the perpetrators to justice.
"Child sexual exploitation is too serious an issue to be hidden away. I am pleased that this information will now be published regularly and put in the public domain."
An increasing issue is that of grooming online and the report calls for better awareness around social media.
It states: "Children with a social networking site profile that may be visible to people not known to them are more likely to have undertaken some kind of potentially risky online behaviour, such as adding people to their contacts they don't know in person, or sending photos or personal details to people only known online
"Nevertheless, there have been some decreases in children's online safety skills. On average, 12 to 15-year-olds have never physically met three in 10 of the friends listed on their main social networking site profile.
"A substantial minority of 12 to 15-year-olds have a social networking profile which may be visible to people not known to them, and this has increased since 2012 (33 per cent v 22 per cent)."
The report's conclusion suggests that data provided by all local authorities should be revisited, with extra information needed on characteristics of all children and young people sexually exploited.
Linda Sanders, Wolverhampton City Council's strategic director for people, insisted the problem was being tackled in Wolverhampton.
She said: "We have embedded national risk assessment and data collection tools, introduced a tracker system to monitor cases and share intelligence and data with partners more effectively. This is enabling us to better identify potential victims of child sexual exploitation.
"Closer links have been forged between the safeguarding service and regulatory services to support the identification of perpetrators and victims of child sexual exploitation. As a result, an awareness campaign aimed at taxi drivers and passengers, hoteliers and fast food outlets has been launched.
"Already there have been a small number of cases in which private hire driver licences have been revoked because of concerns regarding the welfare of children and suspected child sexual exploitation."
David Haley, executive director of children's services at Walsall Council, said the local authority had taken a full and active role in improving its understanding of the scale and nature of the problem in Walsall.
He added: "The study has clearly highlighted that by working together, sharing our joint intelligence across local authority boundaries, that the police and partners can identify potentially vulnerable children much earlier.
"Prior to the issue of the report, we had already taken significant steps to help and protect children and young people from becoming the victims of child sexual exploitation.
"Elected members have been fully involved in this topic, having attended seminars arranged for them, as well as a recent scrutiny committee that reported on the current approach to our work.
"The operational meeting at which individual cases are discussed with the police and other partners has been observed by regional experts to be a model of good practice.
"This approach to joined-up partnership better protects those children who are most at risk of abuse or exploitation in the borough."
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