By Tracy Harrison, chief executive of Derbyshire’s specialist child exploitation charity, Safe and Sound.

Children and young people have undoubtedly suffered throughout the pandemic – missing out on attending school, activities and enjoying social interaction which has all taken its toll on their physical and mental wellbeing.

Even more worrying is that this isolation, the fact that most have spent more time online and the pressure on family finances throughout the past 18 months has made many young people far more vulnerable to being groomed by criminal gangs and individuals both online and face to face.

We support young people across Derbyshire who are victims of or at risk of child exploitation which includes online grooming, sexual exploitation, involvement in drugs gangs as well as trafficking, modern slavery and radicalisation as well as supporting their families and raising awareness of the dangers facing young people.

In line with the national picture, we have seen a 50% increase in referrals for the support in the past year which confirms the real and present danger to a growing number of young people in our local communities.

A particular impact of child exploitation is the toll it takes on a young person’s self-esteem. As well as supporting and protecting the young people we work with, our youth activities programme has focused on re-building their confidence and helping them find their voice so that they can move forward with their lives.

A great example of this has been the incredible Youth Voice project created by Derby Theatre and Baby People.

The young people chose equality and sexism as their subject matters and then worked with artists to create a rap and two dances which they performed to a small audience, including Derbyshire-born actor Molly Windsor.

Molly was inspired to become an ambassador for Safe and Sound after starring in the television drama ‘Three Girls’ – based on the true stories of grooming and sexual abuse in Rochdale between 2008 and 2012.

One of the highlights of that final day was seeing a young person involved in the project talk about how amazing it was to meet Molly and how she shared that watching ‘Three Girls’ had helped her come to terms with her own experiences.

This young person is now looking forward to a positive future but would never have had the courage to speak up before this inspirational creative project.  She is living proof of just how valuable it is to invest in such work to give young people the chance to boost their confidence and find their voice.

There are many more young people whose confidence and self-esteem has been impacted by Covid so my plea is that we all, in whatever walk of life we are, do all that we can to ensure young people can draw a line under these unprecedented times and find their voice so that they too can move forward with their lives.