Local charity Safe and Sound is marking Safer Internet Day (Tuesday February 9 2021) with the launch of a new online webchat for professionals working with children and young people who are particularly vulnerable to online grooming and exploitation.
This year’s Safer Internet Day highlights the importance of ‘an internet we can trust’ – a focus echoed by Safe and Sound which has seen a dramatic rise in referrals over the past year to support children as young as seven who have been targeted by online groomers.
The charity’s specialist case workers are currently working with around 150 children and young people aged between ten and 18 across the city and county who have been victims or who are at risk of grooming and exploitation.
More than half of them have experienced or are at risk of online grooming in various guises.
This has ranged from young people sharing personal information with strangers online to more sinister activity such as being coerced into sharing inappropriate images of themselves and agreeing to meet up face to face.
The charity is particularly concerned about the safety of young people with special educational needs (SEND) who are highly vulnerable to exploitation – both online and in person.
It will therefore launch a new online chat forum on Tuesday Feb 9 and then every Tuesday between 11am and 1pm to raise awareness of child exploitation amongst SEND.
In addition, throughout Safer Internet Day, the webchat facility for parents, professionals and young people will be manned by the support team who will also be available between 10am and 11am through Facebook.
Furthermore, several local schools plan to join a virtual assembly and a special awareness session for parents and carers will be held between 1.30pm and 2.30pm. For more information contact Safe and Sound through the website www.safeandsoundgroup.org.uk
Safe and Sound Education and Awareness Officer Angela Baker works with around eight young people with special educational needs at any one time.
She explained that children and young people with special educational needs tended to be more trusting of people who targeted them on social media and gaming channels.
“In my experience, young people with SEND take on face value many of the things they are told.
“Therefore, if they are targeted online by someone who says they are a similar age and want to be their boyfriend or girlfriend, they are far more likely to believe it.
“This puts them at even greater risk of criminals who then want them to share inappropriate photographs or meet up in secret.
“Our focus is to help young people understand that they cannot always trust what they are being told – particularly online.
“This can be a long process and we use various resources including visual prompts and activities to discuss the scenarios and dangers that they can face in a careful and appropriate way.
“We explain the importance of privacy settings on social media and that they should only be in contact with people that they know and have met. We then help them to gain an understanding of healthy and unhealthy relationships and boundaries.
Safe and Sound supports children and young people across Derbyshire who are victims of or at risk of child exploitation including sexual, trafficking, County Lines, Modern Slavery and radicalisation. It also supports the wider families and raises awareness of the dangers facing young people in local communities.
CEO Tracy Harrison continued: “Online grooming is the ultimate betrayal of trust on the internet with potentially devastating consequences.
“It is therefore highly appropriate that we mark Safer Internet Day with the launch of this dedicated webchat forum in addition to our wider virtual communications.
“People are not always who they say they are online. At first, they may seem friendly and will always find something in common with the young person which is the start of the grooming process.
“This initial contact can turn far more sinister – asking the young person to send inappropriate photos and webcam images or persuading them to meet up.”
Mrs Harrison continued: “Lockdown and the continued restriction on social gatherings has heightened the risk to young boys and girls of child exploitation – regardless of where they live, their family situation, cultural or social background.
“Children and young people have spent long periods not in school and most of the positive activities they have enjoyed continue to be cancelled or reduced.
“This has naturally led to increased stress and isolation with young people spending far more time online and therefore at greater risk of grooming.
“Many young people have also faced additional issues including increased financial pressures on families and heightened tensions at home which make them more susceptible to manipulative grooming from sexual predators and drugs gangs – both online and in person.
“Our focus from the start of the pandemic has been to mitigate the risks of online grooming through awareness of the importance of privacy settings and the dangers of unhealthy relationships.
“Outside lockdown period, we have also been able to support more young people and their families face to face and re-introduce positive activities and work to support young people back into education.
“We are also returning to our grassroots as a charity and have launched an outreach programme to engage directly with young people and highlight the dangers they face at the hands of individuals and groups.
“I hope that the profile around Safer Internet Day reinforces to all parents and carers that they should know who their young people are talking to and meeting – whether that is on the internet or in person.
“It is therefore vital to set strong privacy settings and have a greater awareness of how perpetrators work online.”
Mrs Harrison particularly reinforced that children and young people were not to blame for online grooming: “Although it is important for young people to be vigilant about privacy settings and who they talk to online – it is the other person who is wrong for making these inappropriate approaches.
“Young people need to know that they will not be punished for what they have said or done online but will be listened to and it will be taken seriously.”
She advised that inappropriate online behaviour should be reported to the police or CEOP the national crime agency at www.ceop.police.uk who can investigate.
Young people and their families can also contact Safe and Sound for advice and support www.safeandsoundgroup.org.uk where there is a wide range of information on the issue and how to help the charity continue to tackle child exploitation.
Media enquiries: Sarah Jenkin-Jones, JJPR, Tel: 01332 515102/07951 945665; [email protected]
About Safe and Sound
Formed in 2002, Safe and Sound is an inspiring Derbyshire charity that transforms young lives affected by child exploitation with innovative, hands-on programmes.
The charity works at grass root levels delivering individual support to each child as well as families and carers. This vital support enables them to move not just to a place of safety, but emerge unshackled and undefined by their experience and enabled to reach their full potential.
The charity continues to specialise in child sexual exploitation and is now developing its services to support children and young people facing or at risk of wider exploitation which are often interlinked. These include physical and emotional violence, neglect, modern day slavery, radicalisation and human trafficking, domestic abuse, missing episodes and County Lines.
Safe and Sound is led by former police superintendent Tracy Harrison with the support of a specialist team; an experience board of Trustees and now a team of Ambassadors who are helping to raise the profile of the charity and the issue of child exploitation.
Safe and Sound’s expertise came to the fore during the 2010 landmark case – Operation Retriever – which was Derby’s first prosecution for child sexual exploitation and abuse. The charity’s specialist team supported every young person affected by the criminal actions of 13 defendants who were jailed in total for up to 22 years for 70 offences.
For more information about child exploitation, Safe and Sound Derby and how to support their work, please visit www.safeandsoundgroup.org.uk