A sharp increase in the number of children, young people and families across Derbyshire who have been supported by Safe and Sound show that the taboos around child exploitation are breaking down, according to the charity’s CEO Tracy Harrison.

In 2021 the specialist local charity worked with 292 individuals. This includes 203 young people (compared with 150 the previous year) who are victims of or at risk of child exploitation such as online grooming, sexual exploitation, coercion to run drugs through County Lines, trafficking, Modern Slavery and radicalisation.

The figure also includes 49 families whose children are being groomed and exploited. The whole family is affected when a child is exploited and Safe and Sound help parent, carers and siblings to understand what has happened and how they can move on as a family.

The extended support includes help with housing and access to foodbanks to ease the additional strains on family relationships; helping parents whose first language is not English; and positive activities for siblings.

Mrs Harrison explained that child exploitation had long been a real and present danger across all sections of society – affecting boys and girls regardless of where they lived, their family circumstances, backgrounds, cultures and age.

She explained: “At best child sexual exploitation has been seen as a difficult subject which was easier to ignore.  At the worst extremes, victims were labelled as ‘child prostitutes’ and were blamed for what they experienced.

“We have come a long way in how we work in partnership to tackle child exploitation and the that is support available for those who are victims or at risk.

“Child exploitation is now regarded in its widest sense which reflects the increased remit of Safe and Sound.

“Furthermore, just as there is recognition that children and young people can be exploited for all sorts of reasons and crimes, there is increased recognition amongst those working with young people of the need for support and protection for young people and the stigma felt by families around asking for help is being broken down.

“We now receive referrals from a wide range of professionals – from social workers to teachers – as well as from young people and parents themselves.”

Mrs Harrison did however highlight that there were other ongoing factors which had contributed to the increase in numbers.

“A key aspect of grooming and exploitation is the ability by individuals and gangs to prey upon a young person’s particular vulnerabilities.

“Many young people have had their lives and social circles disrupted by the pandemic – leaving them vulnerable to grooming.

“Also, with families facing increasing financial hardship due to the cost of living crisis, more doors are opening to criminals who are looking to exploit them and coerce them into activity in return for money and expensive gifts.

“By the time the young people realise that supposed ‘relationships’ are not what they seem, they are in too deep to be able to walk away and the criminal exploitation deepens.”

She also highlighted other areas of concern: “Online grooming continues to be of major concern and we continue to see far too many children and young people targeted by perpetrators on social media and gaming channels despite widespread extensive publicity about the need to set watertight privacy settings.

“Another particular worrying factor is the growing number of young people with special educational needs who are being targeted and groomed which accounts for around a third of the young people we support.

“This is something that we are particularly focused on moving forwards to ensure young people who are perhaps more trusting and find it difficult to understand the dangers they face have the support they need.”

Safe and Sound is also committed to raising awareness of the dangers facing young people both online and in person.

During the past 12 months, Safe and Sound and engaged with more than 3,100 young people through outreach activities in local communities such as Derby city centre, Long Eaton and Swadlincote. This is in addition to the 1,000 attendees at a wide range of youth activities ranging from sports and arts and crafts to team building and cultural events.

Furthermore, thanks to the charity embracing virtual technology and the easing of restrictions making it possible to do in person sessions, workshops to raise awareness of the dangers of grooming and exploitation have been attended by around 1,900 young people and adults, including sessions specifically for business leaders and youth groups such as Scouts.

Mrs Harrison continued: “Although this increase shows that collective efforts to ensure young people, parents and professionals all understand about child exploitation, there remain some deeply disturbing realities for far too many young people and their families.

“I am immensely proud of the work that the whole team at Safe and Sound and our partners have achieved in supporting children, young people and their families to help them come to terms with their lived experiences and to move on with their lives.

“We are committed to doing all that we can to better protect and support young people and their families.

“I would also encourage everyone to open their eyes to the dangers of exploitation and take more notice of what is going on both on computer screens and in the local park and streets and to report concerns to the channels available.”

Safe and Sound chair of trustees, Mark Richardson, concluded: “These figures demonstrate the absolutely vital efforts undertaken by the whole team at Safe and Sound.

“The need for the team’s expertise is arguably greater now than ever before. What is essential to appreciate is that their hard work has such a positive effect in helping protect vulnerable children and young people who are at risk across Derbyshire right now.

“I would therefore urge people and businesses to financially and vocally support Safe and Sound’s initiatives and work in recognition of the profound and positive impact they have in our local communities.”

For more information on child exploitation, how to report concerns and the support available through Safe and Sound, visit www.safeandsoundgroup.org.uk