A growing number of local young people are finding themselves targeted by sex offenders who prey on young people before sexually exploiting them.
The issue of child exploitation has become such a concern to the Western Health and Social Care Trust that this week they hosted a major conference on the issue - with the aim of raising awareness through statutory and community bodies as to how they can help.
The two day conference was also opened to workers in the hospitality trade, local taxi drivers and other interested bodies so that the issue can be tackled head on.
Deirdre Mahon, Assistant Director for Safeguarding (Children) said the key message behind the conference was to encourage people if they have any concerns at all that a child is being exploited that they speak out and contact police or social services.
“Child Sexual Exploitation is different to other forms of abuse,” Deirdre said. “This is where someone may target a vulnerable young person and, perhaps over time, build a relationship with that young person which soon becomes abusive.”
Ms Mahon said typically such relationships may begin with an older person flattering a young person, perhaps buying them presents, telling them they love them and encouraging them to take part in inappropriate behaviour.
“What can be difficult about tackling this issue is that many of those who have been targeted may not realise they are being abused. They can be convinced they are in a proper, loving, relationship and while they may feel that something may be not quite right they focus on the positive attention - even if that quickly changes.”
In other cases, abusers may push children towards criminal behaviour. “Perhaps they may get the young people to shoplift - so that they have something to hold over them if they don’t comply with what they want.”
The abuse can then quickly escalate so that young people are “shared” among a group of older adults. “And this is not just young girls - I think it is important to point that out,” Ms Mahon said. “And if a young man is targeted he can often find it tougher to speak out - especially if that young man is confused about his sexuality or what his parents may think.”
Ms Mahon said we have all have role to play to tackling the issue. While health professionals obviously have to know how and when to ask appropriate questions other people can play key roles.
“For example, if a taxi driver is asked to take young girls to house parties where they know the guests are primarily adults, or perhaps if a hotel takes a booking for a room from a teenager, who pays in cash - and perhaps a number of men visit that room...
“These are all things which could raise a red flag.”
More than 200 people attended the conference at the Everglades hotel this week. Ms Mahon said this clearly indicated how seriously this issue has been taken.
If anyone has concerns that a child may be exploited they can contact the PSNI or social services on 02871 314090, which is a number which operates on a 24/7 basis.