A NATIONAL child abuse investigation unit to co-ordinate inquiries into online grooming and child sexual exploitation is to be launched by Police Scotland.
The move comes amid growing concern about the kind of systematic sexual abuse of young teenagers recently uncovered in Rotherham. Child protection authorities believe the problem is far more widespread than previously thought.
As revealed by Scotland on Sunday in August, 23 people in Scotland, including a significant number from ethnic minorities, have been reported to the Crown in connection with 53 alleged offences. One offender is due to be sentenced on Thursday.
The new unit will take a similar approach to the national rape task force which has seen specialist officers brought in and rape investigations put on a par with murder.
“Both the rape task force and the domestic abuse task force have been successful in terms of identifying the skills needed to target these specific [crimes] and in working more closely with a range of partners,” Assistant Chief Constable Malcolm Graham told Scotland on Sunday.
“We need to work in a more structured way in relation to child abuse and to recognise that it is not confined by geographical boundaries.”
Graham said the new unit would build on the work of Operation Dash – the force’s ongoing investigation into Rotherham-style child sexual exploitation (CSE) in the west of Scotland – and the broader efforts being made to tackle the problem nationally.
Speaking exclusively to Scotland on Sunday, Graham said Operation Dash had uncovered evidence of CSE involving the use of “party flats”, with young people lured in through social media.
Officers had also identified city-centre hotspots and increased patrols at those locations. In Glasgow, as in Rotherham, some CSE was linked to the night-time economy (fast food restaurants, taxi services etc).
“We found evidence of it being associated with particular occupations and some, more limited evidence of it being associated with particular premises,” Graham confirmed.
On other occasions, groups of young people were simply being approached on the streets.
The assistant chief constable said threats of violence had been used to prevent victims from reporting their abusers, and there was evidence of girls recruiting other girls as victims, as well as boys recruiting male victims.
Separately, it is understood third-sector organisations have anecdotal evidence of the trafficking of children from city to city within Scotland.
“What we are finding is that the means by which people associate is quite dynamic and loose,” Graham said. “It doesn’t seem to be the case that there is an orchestrated and well-defined attempt to sexually exploit a specific group of people, but there undoubtedly is a group of people who are loosely affiliated and that changes quite quickly; it seems to develop and evolve through networking in social media.”
CSE has been the focus of public attention as a result of high-profile cases in Rochdale, Derby and Rotherham where more than 1,400 young people were said to have been abused over a 16-year period.
After an inquiry, the Scottish Government backed the setting up of a national working group and the development of a national CSE strategy.
On Tuesday, the justice committee at Holyrood will take evidence on the effectiveness of the Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2005 – legislation designed to tackle grooming – after Barnardo’s Scotland raised concerns it had led to fewer than anticipated prosecutions.
Police Scotland is asking the Scottish Government to consider changes to make it easier for them to secure Risk of Sexual Harm Orders (RSHOs) against those suspected of targeting youngsters. Since the enactment of the legislation, just 31 RSHOs have been granted. Graham says the reason they are not used more frequently is that they can only be sought if a suspect has contacted someone under 16 on at least two occasions and their conduct is considered to be sexual.
“We are suggesting that test is sometimes quite difficult to meet,” said Graham, who would like to see the age limit raised to 18 and the number of required contacts cut to one.
One of the reasons for the low number of prosecutions may be that the act was designed to fill a narrow legislative gap or that some offences are prosecuted under the Sexual Offences Act 2009, but Barnardo’s Scotland would like to see further investigation into possible deficiencies.
Another area of concern is the high correlation between young people who run away from children’s homes and victims of CSE.
Historically, Graham concedes, officers may have been guilty of returning children to their carers without probing the reasons for their disappearance. But, he said, much emphasis was now being placed on “return interviews” conducted every time a missing child is brought back to their place of residence. Since some young people run away regularly, it would be easy for these interviews to become tick-box exercises. But Graham says officers are now more aware of the need to explore the background to absconding.
In a pilot scheme in Renfrewshire, return interviews are also being carried out by Barnardo’s Scotland in the hope that young people might feel more comfortable disclosing to a charity than to police.
Graham said the complex nature of CSE – in which young people are offered alcohol, cigarettes drugs or other inducements by older men in exchange for sex – has required a shift away from traditional policing.
“Many of those affected by CSE do not identify as victims,” he said. “That means we have to be proactive; to go looking for signs it might be taking place rather than waiting for complaints to be made to us.”
Another difficulty is that CSE doesn’t fit into any of the neat narratives society might like to impose on it. Graham said one of the purposes behind Operation Dash had been to try to identify an offender profile, but that there were many types of perpetrators and forms of CSE. Though around a third of victims were known to social services, they came from all sectors of society. And, while a significant proportion of suspected offenders were from ethnic minorities, they were not all from the same ethnic minority, and there were also a number of white Scots.
Despite the challenges, Graham said tackling CSE was a priority. Asked if he could be sure police officers in Scotland had not been guilty of failures, he said: “In the past? No. I think improvements we have put in place now are getting us into a position where we are satisfied we can protect children and young people who we have believe to be at risk and we do everything we can to gather evidence to bring the perpetrators to justice. But we know there is still more work to be done.”