Abuse figures expected to rise as inquiry continues
Exploitation raises questions about levels of care for the vulnerable
Health minister Edwin Poots told an Assembly committee yesterday afternoon that ’many of the people who have been abused don’t recognise that they have been abused’. Photograph: PA
Police are investigating allegations of sexual exploitation of 22 young people aged 13 to 18 in Northern Ireland but they are convinced that figure will increase as they and the relevant statutory agencies and charitable bodies continue their inquiries.
It’s different from the highly publicised cases in Rochdale and in Oxford in recent years where gangs, respectively, of Pakistani and Muslim males targeted white girls for sexual exploitation.
Social welfare workers said that vulnerable young people were not under “lock-down” in residential homes and that they had the same freedoms children in regular families enjoyed as they grew through their teenage years towards independence and adulthood. They indicated that such were their frailties, their problems and often their disturbed personalities that it was difficult to manage them or keep them safe. And worryingly that remains the case although greater efforts are being taken to safeguard the most vulnerable.
The degree of exploitation raises questions about the level of care at these residential homes – questions which could not be answered fully by politicians, police or care workers yesterday.
Where there are similarities with the English cases is in the scale of the abuse, mostly of girls and young women but also of young males, which has caused considerable shock and alarm in Northern Ireland. Most are living in residential homes although some live with their families.
The social services and charitable bodies will not be so surprised however. A Barnardo’s study in November 2011 warned that two-thirds of girls in welfare homes were at risk of sexual exploitation. That study triggered this more comprehensive police investigation.
At a press conference yesterday Linda Wilson, the director of Barnardo’s Northern Ireland, spoke of how social workers identified child sexual exploitation as “an issue of concern” in 147 cases out of a sample of 1,102 youngsters between 12-17 years old who were looked after or known to social services. She also pointed to a NI Life and Times Survey of almost 786 16-year-olds in which almost 87 of them – one in nine – reported experience of sexual grooming.
A major additional problem, as Ms Wilson pointed out and as health Minister Edwin Poots told an Assembly committee yesterday afternoon, is that “many of the people who have been abused don’t recognise that they have been abused”.
Heartbreakingly, quite a number of them actually believed they were being “loved”, police and social workers explained yesterday. Therefore these young people were unlikely to expose their abusers. In fact, as Ms Wilson also said, many of them kept returning to their abusers.
She said people in the care system were “disproportionately targeted” because of their vulnerability.
Ms Wilson added: “Why do they keep going back? They keep going back because they get love, attention, gifts. They are fed drugs and alcohol and they are afraid.”
She elaborated on how that twisted love co-existed with the fear factor. “We would have young people coming in after weekends sometimes injured because there has been a suspicion that they have talked. They are afraid and that is one of the reasons they keep going back.”
She did not have any short-term solutions to a problem that for the first time has gripped Northern Ireland in such a distressing manner.
A collaborative approach involving the police, the statutory agencies, charitable bodies and the community generally was required. Society had to become “corporate parents” to the frail and vulnerable, said Ms Wilson.