Northern Ireland

Marshall inquiry: Child sexual exploitation a 'growing threat'

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Media captionThe reports author, Kathleen Marshall, was asked if she believed paramilitaries were involved in child exploitation

Child sexual exploitation is a "growing threat" to young people in Northern Ireland, an inquiry has found.

The Marshall inquiry also said it heard that individuals with links to paramilitary groups may have abused children.

The inquiry was commissioned last year after it emerged police had identified 22 people, aged between 13 and 18, who may have been sexually exploited.

Health Minister Jim Wells outlined its findings at Stormont.

He said that the inquiry did not find the type of organised exploitation seen in Rotherham and Rochdale.

"There is no evidence in the report to suggest a cover-up, corruption or lack of commitment on the part of agencies or individuals," he said.

The inquiry was led by Prof Kathleen Marshall who is a former commissioner for children and young people in Scotland.

Influence

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Media captionHealth Minister Jim Wells outlined the reports findings at Stormont

It identified 100 to 145 children as being at risk of exploitation, but said the number could be much higher.

The inquiry's report said that individuals with links to paramilitary groups may have used those links to abuse children.

It added that the abuse was not organised by paramilitary groups but by people who had influence because of their connection to the groups.

The inquiry said that child sexual exploitation "must be regarded as a significant and growing threat to the welfare of children and young people".

It has made a number of recommendations involving social services, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the Department of Health.

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Media captionSocial Worker Frankie Nolan worked with police on an investigation into child sexual exploitation

PSNI assistant chief constable Mark Hamilton said the police had appointed a detective chief superintendent and five detective chief inspectors to ensure better oversight coordination and investigation of all forms of child abuse and domestic violence.

"We recognise the critical need for joined-up working, timely sharing of information and collective action to protect victims of abuse and address this issue. We accept the recommendations made by Kathleen Marshall and will now work quickly to implement them," he said.

"The welfare of the victims is absolutely paramount and, at all times, the police response to the issue of child sexual exploitation will always be victim-centred, dealing with them sensitively and appropriately."

"We are entirely committed to earlier identification of victims, better preventative engagement with communities and families, improved response to victims, more prosecutions and disruption of offenders."

The NSPCC Northern Ireland said the Marshall report highlighted "steps that need to be taken to protect children" from abuse.

Neil Anderson, head of service for NSPCC NI, said: "We know that child sexual exploitation is not unique to Northern Ireland.

"The shocking investigations in Rotherham and Rochdale highlighted that measuring the full size and scale of the issue is very difficult.

'Awareness'

"While the report does not highlight a major child sexual exploitation problem here as yet, we must put in place systems to ensure that every child and young person who has been abused receives the vital help they need."

Barnardo's NI said it welcomed the findings of the inquiry report and that it confirmed that "child sexual exploitation is widespread and growing and is not restricted to children in care".

Lynda Wilson, director of Barnardo's NI, said: "As the report acknowledges there is still a long way to go to ensure protection for our children and young people from sexual exploitation and there is no silver bullet.

"Empowering young people through awareness raising and e-safety are two critical elements in helping young people protect themselves as part of an overall strategy."

For the past year, the inquiry has been examining the nature of child sexual exploitation and to what extent it has been taking place in Northern Ireland.

It has also been examining how effective safeguarding arrangements are across the health and judicial systems.

While a majority of victims were living in residential care, children living in their own family homes were also on the PSNI's radar.

While the issue is not new, evidence among those working on the frontline suggested that child sexual exploitation is widespread and growing.

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