Social work staff ‘fail to spot online signs of child sexual abuse’

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Social workers are struggling to detect warning signs when a child is being targeted for online sex abuse, research shows.

Half of social workers polled were concerned about dealing with online sexual abuse or behaviour, while more than two thirds felt they needed more guidance with child protection cases involving online abuse.

The survey, by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and children’s charity the NSPCC, questioned 327 people about their experiences.

Half did not know how to recognise signs of online sexual abuse of children, while 36 per cent felt they did not know the right questions to ask to identify and assess online sexual abuse.

And although almost half (49 per cent) said a quarter of their sexual abuse cases now involve some form of online abuse, three in ten did not feel confident dealing with problem.

And a third (34 per cent) of social workers in the survey do not feel they understand language used by young people online and 47 per cent said they were not knowledgeable about how young people communicate via social networking sites.

NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless said: “Keeping children safe from sexual abuse increasingly means protecting them from offenders who use technology to target their victims, such as grooming in chatrooms or online social networks.

“And vulnerable young people are now being coerced into sharing explicit images of themselves via mobile phone messages and apps. So it’s vital social workers understand these techniques and can talk to children about them. It’s worrying the majority of social workers surveyed are struggling to understand how online child abuse happens. We know they are doing a tough job and shouldn’t need to be technology experts but they do need to have a grasp of the basics.”

A study by the NSPCC last year found 40 per cent of young people had been involved in “sexting” – when sexually explicit messages are sent on a mobile phone or online.

Following the study, the NSPCC is to develop an e-learning course in partnership with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre to help social workers become more 
familiar with the online world.

BASW professional officer Nushra Mansuri said: “The number of cases in which the internet plays a part in the abuse of children is rising, and social workers need to be equipped to recognise the warning signs.”

The study uncovered social workers who described feeling “out of their depth” and felt they needed urgent training.

Yesterday Avon and Somerset Police launched a campaign targeting young people who have sent explicit texts, images and videos by phone and websites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Warnings about the consequences of “sexting” will be posted online and a series of radio adverts will also run on Kiss FM.

They will also be warned of the dangers that taking a self-shot could cause, if the image is picked up by a sex offender.

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