Man held in major child sex probe

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The Independent Online

An investigation into the suspected sexual abuse and exploitation of up to 20 children has been launched by police.

A 19-year-old man was arrested today and more arrests are expected as the inquiry into the suspected grooming of youngsters aged 12 and above gathers pace.

Devon and Cornwall Police said the alleged offences ranged from indecent assault to rape over a two to three-year period in the Torbay and Teignbridge areas.

Thousands of letters have been sent from Torbay Council to the parents of children at secondary schools telling them of the investigation.

Police said they had interviewed 20 children so far, who were mainly girls, from more than one school in the area.

Officers said the allegations did not involve paedophiles snatching children off the street and stressed that the victims were known to the alleged offenders.

The investigation is looking at whether social networking may have been involved.

At a press conference in Torbay, Detective Inspector Simon Snell, who is leading the inquiry, said there appeared to be "all manner of grooming taken place and it could well also be on the internet".

The suspect is being held at a police station in Torquay on suspicion of offences related to child exploitation.

The inquiry started last week after children came forward to childcare agencies which then alerted police.

Mr Snell said: "The complaints have been made by children.

"It was raised at a multi-agency forum quite recently. We acted really, really quickly to make sure we listened to those multi-agency groups and have then conducted this investigation.

"We are looking at other people and other arrests may follow in the coming days and weeks.

"One offender has been arrested, but we are keeping an open mind to actually find out are there other linked offenders in this case."

Mr Snell said a team of 50 officers was working on the investigation and said the offences did not include prostitution.

He said police had no evidence of images being involved but were keeping an open mind.

He added: "Each of the children is known to the offenders and it's simply not the case that this is a group of paedophiles grabbing people off the street."

He told parents that their children were safe to walk home from school.

Superintendent Jim Nye, in charge of policing in Torbay, said a police presence outside schools in the area was purely for reassurance and not to deal with any offenders.

Police could not confirm where the alleged abuse happened but said they wanted to make clear it was not in any of the schools in the area.

Dr Carol Tozer, director of children's services for Torbay Council, said eight social workers are supporting the children who have been interviewed.

She added no children have been taken into care as a result of this investigation, although two were already in care.

A teacher at one secondary school in the area, who declined to be named, said: "The letter reassures parents that the care within the schools, the council, the bay and police is very high.

"Every parent has received a letter in secondary schools in the area, written by the head of children's services.

"We've spoken to a couple of parents who phoned in this morning, but that was because they hadn't received the letter, which they have now.

"We'll reassure any parents that need reassuring and provide all the support we can."

In a plea to the community, Mr Snell asked for people to come forward and praised those who already had as "very, very brave".

"We cannot operate unless the community speak to us, so I hope that is the message I am getting out to the community and possible victims," he said.

"They can feel safe and come towards us now with any allegations in regards to child exploitation within Torbay.

"We will treat those allegations seriously and fully investigate them. We are going to make sure that child exploitation becomes a thing of the past in Torbay."

Anyone with concerns of child exploitation in Torbay should call the police on 08452 777444 and quote Operation Mansfield.