There is a very real link between missing people and exploitation. Regularly going missing is a sign of sexual or criminal exploitation and unfortunately many of the young missing people we deal with have been groomed by older people, or pressured into joining a gang.
The reality is any children can be exploited for money, power or status, or become involved in exploitative situations, contexts or relationships, where the young person receives something, such as accommodation, drugs, alcohol, affection, or gifts in return for some kind of sexual act. In many cases, both young boys and girls can also be groomed into carrying out criminal acts.
Frequently going missing from home may be a sign that a child or young person is falling victim to, or becoming more vulnerable to, exploitation of all kinds.
According to Missing People.org, children are more likely to reported missing than adults, with 1 in 200 children going missing each year. Seven in 10 children or young people have been reported missing have been sexually exploited.
In Bedfordshire, over 1,600 children under the age of 18 were reported missing between January and July this year. Of these, 67 were flagged as being at risk of sexual exploitation.
Detective Sergeant Vicky Macleod, from the CSE and Missing Investigation team, said: “Investigating CSE can be challenging at times. Many young people don’t realise, or believe they are victims, or may be frightened of what may happen to them, especially if they have been coerced into sexual or criminal exploitation. Often they feel like they are in a real relationship and have complete trust in their abuser. They don't understand, or want to face up to the fact, that they've been groomed and they’re being abused, and so are unwilling to talk about what has happened to them.”
In Bedfordshire we are working hard to raise awareness of and tackle this issue. Operation Makesafe is a national initiative supported by the force to provide information to hotels, bars, clubs, fast food outlets and taxi companies around the county how to spot the signs of exploitation, and know how to report it.
For example, a member of staff working at a hotel may notice some unusual behaviour, such as a young person or child with someone much older checking into the same room. They may recognise this as a sign that a child is being groomed and can call police on 101 quoting Op Makesafe. This will trigger a dedicated response so officers attending will know it is a possible CSE incident.
CSE is happening in our county, and it is important that we are all aware of the signs of exploitation of all forms, and how to report. Safeguarding children is everyone’s business and we want to encourage people to speak out if they feel something isn’t quite right.
To help SAFEGUARD children from CSE, look out for these potential warning signs:
Sexual health and behaviour
Absent from school or repeatedly running away
Familial abuse and/or problems at home
Emotional and physical condition
Gangs, older age groups and involvement in crime
Use of technology and sexual bullying
Alcohol and drug misuse
Receipt of unexplained gifts or money
Distrust of authority
You can find out more about CSE, the signs to spot, how to report it and what to do if you are concerned that a child or young person is being exploited, visit our Bedfordshire Against CSE website.