'Concerning gaps' in response to child sexual exploitation say inspectors
An inspection of how the criminal justice system responds to child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Northern Ireland has highlighted a lack of clear leadership and strategic direction.
The report published today (June 30) by the Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI) also identified concerning gaps in the operational practice of the police with many officers “unaware of the wider risks” for the safety of the children involved.
“CSE is happening here in our towns, cities and rural communities. It is an uncomfortable truth and a reality that we must deal with. It is child abuse and it can involve children who live with their parents just as much as those who are in care, or have been in care before,” said Jacqui Durkin, Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland.
“This inspection found that despite the great efforts made since the publication of the Marshall Report on child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland in 2014, we still do not have a clear picture of the scale and nature of child sexual exploitation occurring in our community.
“Inspectors recommend the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) should develop a problem profile for child sexual exploitation. This should be carried out in conjunction with the Department of Justice (DoJ) and include information from health, social services, education and other partners.
“A problem profile will improve understanding of the risks to children from those people who seek to sexually exploit them, and enhance knowledge about what is required to effectively disrupt perpetrators and protect children.”
Ms Durkin also called for a cross-departmental strategic framework to be established within the next six months that would support a collaborative response to child sexual abuse and exploitation in Northern Ireland, provide clear leadership and promote good frontline practice across the criminal justice system and beyond.
“CSE is an important issue and given the devastating impact it can have on victims, it requires a strategic joined-up response,” she said.
The Chief Inspector said change also needed to be implemented to address gaps in operational police practice identified by Inspectors during the inspection fieldwork.
“This inspection found there were many police officers, prosecutors and other professionals working within the criminal justice system who were dedicated and tireless in their efforts to help children at risk of child sexual exploitation,” said Ms Durkin.
“Yet despite this positive work, we found examples where information and intelligence linked to children identified as being at high risk of sexual exploitation, had not been recorded on the police system leaving frontline police officers unaware of the wider risks that existed.”
Inspectors also identified inconsistencies in the approach of the PSNI’s five Public Protection Units when dealing with CSE as a result of a lack of resources and the level of supervision applied.
Actions to safeguard children and disrupt suspects were not always apparent from the sample of case files reviewed as part of the inspection fieldwork.
“These issues were raised with the police at the time of the inspection fieldwork and I acknowledge and welcome the work already underway within the PSNI to address these gaps in operational practice and the inspection recommendations,” said Ms Durkin.
She added: “Frontline police officers need to be supported to develop greater professional curiosity so they look beyond a child’s immediate behaviour, such as going missing or suspected offending, to find out what is really going on and identify children at risk of or experiencing sexual exploitation.
“Prosecutors also need to be better supported to show how issues such as exploitation and grooming are taken into account as part of their decision making when dealing with children who are suspected of committing offences.”
In conclusion the Chief Inspector said every effort must be made to support victims of child sexual exploitation and abuse, disrupt perpetrators and secure convictions for these offences.
“Victims need to see the criminal justice system is focused on the perpetrators’ conduct rather than their behaviour. Our approach must ensure children who have experienced child sexual exploitation are supported, believed and they are not expected as one victim put it, to ‘be the fix’,” said Ms Durkin.
“Effective implementation of the two strategic and seven operational recommendations made in this inspection report will enable a better criminal justice system response to child sexual exploitation and better outcomes for our children and young people. I intend to return to this issue and assess progress against the inspection recommendations in the future.”