A Derby mum speaks out about her own son’s experiences
As the world marks and celebrates Pride Month this June, Derbyshire’s specialist child exploitation charity, Safe and Sound, has warned that young people who are questioning or exploring their sexuality are particularly vulnerable to online grooming and exploitation.
And a Derby mum has spoken out about her own son’s experiences which still affects the whole family to this day.
Safe and Sound’s workload has doubled since the start of the pandemic – particularly due the increased support needed for children and young people who are victims of or at risk of online grooming.
Furthermore, the specialist team has worked with more young people who have gone online to find answers to their questions about *LGBTQ+ – making them more vulnerable to sexual predators.
Safe and Sound CEO Tracy Harrison explained: “Online grooming could happen to any child or young person.
“However, if an LGBTQ+ child or young person hasn’t come out or feels that their gender identity or sexuality needs to be kept secret, perpetrators can take advantage of this to prevent the child from telling anyone about the relationship or to coerce them into meeting offline without telling anyone else.”
The mother of a teenage boy who was targeted online by sexual predators wanted to tell her story in the hope that other families will be extra vigilant to the warning signs.
The family, who live in Derby, turned to Safe and Sound for help and support when the online grooming of their son came to light.
Now, nine months later, they are determined to do all that they can to highlight the dangers facing young people both online and in person.
Jane (not her real name) has many years’ experience working in education and social care and she and her husband thought they had internet safety covered to protect her young son and daughter online.
However, their world turned upside down in just one day when son (then aged 12) asked to be picked up from school because he felt unwell.
“Jane’s” husband uncovered the problem via his son’s phone
He headed straight to his room – leaving his phone on the table – and Jane’s husband decided to check his son’s social media accounts which they often did to ensure privacy settings had not been breached.
To his horror, he found two long Whatsapp conversation threads. One was with a foreign number claiming to be a teenager asking for explicit images and another from an older man who wanted to meet up for advice on how to talk to his own son about his sexuality.
Warning bells started to ring and when Jane returned home from work, they both looked at their son’s Snapchat account – discovering that he had hundreds of connections with strangers.
A deeper delve into the phone found reams of naked and explicit images which their son had both received and which he had sent out of himself.
Jane said: “We are a very open and loving family with great relationships with our children so I never thought that this would happen to one of them.
“Looking back, starting puberty and going up to senior school during Covid definitely didn’t help our son. I knew he was struggling and was becoming more introverted but we just put that down to his age.
“We found ‘gay teenage boys’ on his search history and it was obvious that he had been questioning whether he was gay and had gone online looking for answers to the questions going round his head.
“We could also see that there had been a photo exchange with the foreign number just that morning and realised that this had got seriously out of hand and that our son had left his phone out on purpose for us to see.”
The family sought support
Jane and her husband decided they needed to call the police. “I really struggled with the explicit nature of the photographs but I recognised that he was being coerced and exploited into sharing images of himself.
“The police officer was firm but fair and warned our son that sharing explicit images of himself was illegal and that he could be prosecuted.
“Thankfully they did not take this further but, equally, there was little the police could do. Having tracked down the foreign number to Thailand, they alerted the police there.
“Also, although the motives of the man in this country wanting to meet up were most probably sexual, the content of his messages were not illegal so the police couldn’t do anything apart from put an alert on his number.
“The police officer was particularly brutal about the consequences of all of this. They know the images of our son and his number had already been shared on the ‘dark web’ – leaving him vulnerable to further grooming.
“He could also be easily found by matching up other photos on social media, for example, in his school uniform which could have put both him and his sister in real danger of … well anything.”
The whole situation took an immense toll on the family and Jane was unable to find him help until she contacted Safe and Sound.
“Although he has been a victim of grooming and exploitation, we don’t want what he has been through to define him for the rest of his life and we desperately needed help to move on.
“My biggest fear was he would start to self-harm – or worse – and that has kept me awake at night.
“After so many closed doors, finding Safe and Sound was a huge weight off our shoulders.
“The support worker really put us all at our ease and spent time building up a rapport with our son. To this day, I don’t know what they discussed which is exactly how it should be.
“She has reassured me that our son recognises how he put himself in danger and that he was not talking to boys his own age but to adults looking to exploit him so he is in a good place to move forward with his life.
Pride Month encourages open conversations
“He is now 14 and doing well. Although we don’t know whether he is straight, gay or bisexual, he seems more comfortable and confident in himself and he has some good mates – boys and girls.
“Every day gets easier but I am still mad at him and the people who took advantage of him. Yes he was naïve but these people are professional perpetrators and they prey off young people’s insecurities and uncertainty.
“All the security settings on both of our children’s phones are now at the highest levels – particularly blocking foreign numbers. We changed their numbers and closed down social media accounts.
“Both children are also only allowed to use their phones at certain times and only at weekends when we are around.”
Jane concluded: “My biggest concern now is what could be happening in other families’ homes. It is worrying to think of parents who have found things on their children’s phones that they should never see but who are brushing things under the carpet – too ashamed to get help.
“I would appeal to any other parent in this situation not to hide it and this could make matters worse. It’s important to call the police – however scary a prospect that is – and to recognise that you need help to come to terms with what has happened.
“Safe and Sound have been a lifeline for our family and I am so grateful that we found them. It is a scary world out there but we need to do all that we can to protect our children both on the internet and in our local communities.”
Tracy Harrison added: “Pride Month is a hugely positive movement and encourages open and honest conversations. I appreciate this is not always easy for families having those first conversations but it is really important to talk.
“And I would appeal to all families to be extra vigilant about who their young people are talking to online and to set the highest privacy settings.”
For more information about the work of Safe and Sound and how to support them during their 20th anniversary year, please visit www.safeandsoundgroup.org.uk
*LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning and more. This term covers a broad range of people who have different lived experiences and may be at different stages in exploring their identity. It includes people who are asexual or have differences in sex development (sometimes known as being intersex).
For more information about child exploitation, Safe and Sound Derby and how to support their work, please visit www.safeandsoundgroup.org.uk