Justice for the victims of child sexual exploitation marks an important step forward at the conclusion of what has been a harrowing five-month trial at the Old Bailey. Convictions like these play a vital part in tackling the core of this pernicious and destructive crime.
It is essential that sexually exploited children have the confidence to put their faith in the criminal justice system. Seeing the crimes of these seven men laid bare in such a high profile and well-publicised trial will help to engender confidence in others.
However, it is crucial that improvements continue to be made to police, prosecution and court practice to ensure we see more of these criminals successfully convicted. Through our 23 specialist services we know just how difficult it is for sexually exploited young people to seek a prosecution for their abuse. The sad truth is that the ordeal of going through the courts is potentially more damaging than the abuse itself. This trial starkly demonstrates just how difficult this process can be.
The accounts of abuse and exploitation re-told by the victims were unspeakably shocking. Girls were regularly raped, beaten and trafficked for sex. One girl told of how her abuser branded her with a hairpin while another woke up naked between two men after passing out having been plied with drink and drugs.
For these girls giving evidence in court must have taken incredible courage. Standing behind a curtain or giving evidence via a video link offers no real protection to the accusations of lying or suggestions that the abuse was “the product of a fertile imagination” by the men who exploited them.
It is easy to see why the invasive nature of going to court can stop young people from reporting the abuse they suffered or from providing evidence in court. It’s essential that more is done to overcome the inherent barriers to achieving prosecutions. This should include ensuring that special measures are always made available for young people and that victims have access to appropriate support to guide them throughout the court process. It is also crucial that agencies continue to engage with victims and prioritise their welfare after the trial has ended, regardless of the verdict.
Nobody currently knows the full extent of these crimes because of their hidden nature. There is an urgent need to improve data on the prevalence of child sexual exploitation, to strengthen the evidence base and to support professionals to appropriately share information.
Victims of sexual exploitation must not be left to suffer in silence because their calls for help are ignored or dismissed. Everyone has a duty to know how to spot the signs in order to protect children from this sickening crime and ensure that abusers are brought to justice.
The need has never been greater; the number of sexually exploited children known to Barnardo’s rose by 22 per cent to 1,452 in the UK last year and 37 per cent during the past three years. Many of our services are oversubscribed and running waiting lists with more than 200 sexually exploited children waiting to receive the support they need.
The men have been found guilty of appalling crimes against some of the most vulnerable people in our society. They will no doubt face lengthy custodial sentences but it would be wrong for us to view this with any sense of finality. The trial may have ended but across the country countless young people continue to be exploited for sex by criminal gangs.
For the victims of these seven men, with the right help and support the long journey to rebuild their lives can really begin. For other sexually exploited children across the UK, Barnardo's will strive to give them someone to turn to in their darkest hour. We will never stop fighting to ensure that wherever possible the perpetrators of these heinous crimes face the full consequences of their actions.
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