Children from ‘normal families’ in Harrogate are being targeted for sexual exploitation after new figures suggested a stark rise in instances across the district.
Figures presented to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee revealed North Yorkshire Police has dealt with 12 more instances of sexual offences in the Harrogate district, including rape, this year compared to last.
The report also indicated that, in just six months, the Serious Crime Team (SCT) received 17 notifications of individuals in the district using the internet to commit offences against children.
While Superintendent Mike Walker assured residents the police were committing more resources to reach the mounting threat, he stated that the sexual exploitation of children in the district is nothing new.
He said: “What it is is child abuse. It’s always been there and we’ve always dealt with it.
“There’s child abuse that goes on for many years which is then reported several years later when they feel brave enough to come forward.
“You can imagine the amount of work that’s put into that victim to get the evidence. To go back and look to arrest the perpetrators which is sometimes people they know or people within the family who has abused them over the years.”
Supt Walker explained that the unit’s hard work in these cases has been reflected by recent convictions coming through this year for the most serious of offences. This includes one individual who was jailed for 22 years for inter family sexual abuse while another was jailed for 12 years for sexual activity with a child.
“Some of the most high risk child abuse from a jail term would be familiar with child abuse in the home or someone associated with the family. That’s where some of the high risk is because it’s contact child abuse.
“In some of the online Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) cases there’s elements of grooming then arranging to meet the young person and there’s also revenge porn.
“But in a lot of these investigations there’s no contact with the child. We make arrests before that risk is there but a lot in this report is child abuse from a familiar setting.”
With more and more children accessing the Internet and social media than ever before, police have warned there has never been a greater opportunity for child exploitation.
While many of the children targeted are from vulnerable backgrounds, the ease in accessing social media has meant children from any background are now just as susceptible to exploitation.
Officers in Harrogate have already responded to this growing threat by creating a Cybercrime unit which Supt Walker believes will only continue to grow.
He said: “The opportunity for sex offenders to exploit children online is much wider than it used to be five or ten years ago. And 20 years ago it wasn’t really there.
“We have just picked up a lot of this investigation work and our resources are rightly being drawn into protecting these children because Cybercrime is only going to get bigger.
“It will grow bigger than we can resource it. There’s various different cases but there’s a lot of training for police officers about the dark web and where these people operate.
“There’s a lot more third party reporting coming in from partners and when it comes in we deal with it. I hope it doesn’t continue to increase but at the moment that’s what we have to work on.”
Each of the 17 instances of individuals using the Internet to commit offences against children since April has been responded to by the SCT.
This intensive action from the team includes obtaining warrants, searching premises, arresting and interviewing suspects, submitting computer or phone devices for forensic examination and submission of a prosecution file.
Supt Walker warned that these instances of CSE are taking place right across the country and residents shouldn’t be surprised Harrogate isn’t exempt.
He said: “There are people in the public who say ‘I didn’t think this would be going on in Harrogate’, especially in the rural areas where they expect it to happen more in the urban conurbations.
“But CSE is going on here in the county and in the Harrogate district and we do a lot of work to reduce the risk to children involved.
“We find a lot of victims are not necessarily from looked after children in children’s homes. There’s an element of that but there’s also children from normal families who are targeted.
“Any child using the Internet can be targeted, any child going off to school, to their friends or the shops are susceptible to being exploited.”
Supt Walker urged that Harrogate and North Yorkshire remained a very safe place to live but admitted some of the children exploited in these instances had been targeted.
However, in many cases, exploitation arises when children make ‘poor decisions’ and police have urged parents to monitor their social media use.
“Nowadays, an 11-year-old and an 18-year-old both know what they’re doing on the Internet,” explained Superintendent Walker. “We know there are children who have Facebook and Instagram and they’re young to have them.
It’s about knowing what your children use social media wise, knowing who they’re talking to on the Internet and what your kids are browsing,
“It’s very low risk kids will be targeted for CSE but there’s always the chance it could happen and it’s knowing what your kids are doing on the internet.”