Children are almost certainly being sexually exploited in Brighton and Hove and the surrounding area.
Accurate numbers are hard to come by. But after the many failures of the police, politicians, council officials, social workers and others in Rotherham, a great deal of work is taking place locally to apply the lessons.
An overview of that work was shared with the Brighton and Hove Community Safety Forum at Hove Town Hall yesterday (Monday 2 March) by Deb Austin, head of safeguarding at Brighton and Hove City Council.
The overview included details of work started by Sussex Police almost exactly a year ago to strengthen officers’ knowledge and approach.
It also covered Operation Kite which started in May last year. Members of the Community Safety Forum were told that Op Kite was “a Sussex police initiative around the reporting and identification of children and young people who are at risk of (child sexual exploitation)”.
Police, social workers, head teachers, doctors and others hold a monthly Red Op Kite meeting to compare notes on who might be at risk.
They try to work out the best way of helping those children and young people identified as at high risk – those in the “red” category that gives Red Op Kite meetings their name. There are currently about 15 children and young people deemed to be at high risk, some of them from grooming.
Intelligence is also shared about potential perpetrators – those suspected of grooming, trafficking or forming inappropriate relationships with children and young people. And those at the meetings try to work out the best way to pursue perpetrators with the goal of protecting their young prey.
Much thought has been given to how best to bring together the professionals who deal with vulnerable children and young people.
One answer is the Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub – the MASH – in Brighton which has been running since September. It started with social workers and police working under the same roof, with health service staff due to join them.
One of those charged with taking an overview is Graham Bartlett, the former Brighton and Hove police chief who chairs the Local Safeguarding Children Board (LCSB). It is his job to identify any shortcomings across the area and to work out how to tackle them.
Among the challenges facing Mr Bartlett and his colleagues is how to share information about individual children and young people with hospital staff.
There is a need to increase awareness of children and young people who are already the subject of concern and who might turn up at a doctor’s surgery or a local hospital.
They may show up drunk. They may have reacted badly to drugs or have taken an overdose. They may have harmed themselves.
Children who have been sexually exploited may have mental or emotional health problems as well as physical symptoms.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that Brighton and Hove is such a lovely place and so different to somewhere like Rotherham that it couldn’t happen here.
But even in the past few weeks, efforts have been stepped up to identify and help boys and young men deemed to be potentially at risk of sexual exploitation.
Mr Bartlett and Pinaki Ghoshal, executive director of children’s services at Brighton and Hove City Council, have also discussed children who run away or go missing. And how they may not necessarily stay in Brighton and Hove when they do, while others run away to Brighton from elsewhere.
They are not just having to bring together different organisations but to work well with their counterparts in East Sussex and West Sussex and even London boroughs.
Mr Bartlett said: “The LSCB is determined to work with all agencies and communities to ensure that the services provided to eradicate child sexual exploitation are easy to access, joined up and effective.
“We know the damage these crimes do to young people so our approach to ensure we prevent those at risk falling victim, protect and support those already suffering and prosecute those who abuse others in this way needs to be co-ordinated at all levels and it’s the LSCB’s job to make sure that happens.
“The programmes we have in place such as Red Op Kite are effective but we will never become complacent. We can always do more.”
The report to the Community Safety Forum came two days after National Safeguarding Day on Saturday (28 February) when the aim was to raise the profile and improve the public understanding of the LSCB.