Child sexual exploitation may be under-reported in school holidays, says charity

Child sexual exploitation might be under-reported during school holidays, a charity has warned, after data suggested dips in the monthly average police records of such abuse outside of term time.

Barnardo’s said police records of child sexual exploitation fell during school holiday periods of at least two weeks, then increased when term time resumed.

The children’s charity submitted Freedom of Information requests to 34 police forces across the UK, and said 20 had responded with full information on the six-year period they enquired about.

The responses showed the average proportion of child sexual exploitation offences per month decreased in April, August, September and December – roughly coinciding with Easter, summer and Christmas.

The monthly average for April between 2016 and 2022 was 7.5%, but rose to 8.4% in May.

While it was 9.6% for July, this fell to 7.5% in August, 7.4% in September and rose to 9.3% in October.

The figure for December was 7.3% and rose to 8.6% in January.

The charity said it “knows from its frontline work with children who have been exploited that this abuse doesn’t stop when schools are closed”, adding that it was “concerned that this data indicates that when children are exploited during the holidays it is less likely to be identified and reported”.

The charity’s chief executive Lynn Perry said: “Summer holidays should be about fun and relaxation, but we are deeply concerned that a growing number of children could be at risk of sexual and criminal exploitation both online and in the community.

“With many children spending several hours a day without adult supervision, and without activities like youth clubs, there’s a greater risk of harm and a higher likelihood they will go unidentified and unsupported.”

She called for the Government to “invest in nationwide specialist support services, such as therapy and counselling, for all children who are victims of exploitation to help them to recover”, and for more investment in services such as youth clubs which “provide safe spaces and help ensure all children have a trusted adult they can turn to in the school holidays”.

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the teachers’ union the NASUWT, said: “This report raises some important questions about the role and responsibility of government in ensuring that children and families have timely access to services beyond schools that are equipped and resourced to ensure the safety of children and young people when schools are open and when they are not.”

Ian Critchley, from the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), said: “We know that teachers, youth workers and trusted adults are so important to children, particularly those who are vulnerable. However, schools and youth organisations can’t tackle this by themselves.”

He said he welcomed the report “and the spotlight it shines on this important area of research”.

He added: “We are all working towards ensuring that victims and survivors have a voice and are better protected. This report gives insight into trends that require consideration leading to real action.”

A Government spokesperson said: “Child sexual abuse is a heinous crime which affects the most vulnerable in our society.

“We fund charities that provide vital support to victims and survivors of child sexual abuse and will be consulting later this year on how to make out-of-school settings as safe as possible for children. We also provide parents and councils with guidance on how to ensure children are as safe as possible.”

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