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Thousands of Croydon children at risk of being sexually exploited

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THOUSANDS of children are at risk of being sexually exploited in Croydon, which has the highest number of children in care in London and is becoming a hotspot for youth trafficking. In this special report, GEORGIE KEATE investigates why this is happening and what is being done to tackle it....

"IT STARTED when I ran away from home for the first time at 14. My family was volatile. I stayed with a friend for a bit, then her sister's. But I soon ended up in a girls' hostel and that's where it began. They manipulated me, my own peers."

Marcia Francis is now 51 but her teenage years were to shape the rest of her life. "I was a persistent runaway, a 'juvenile absconder' the police called it then," she said. "Things started to get more dangerous for me but I just did not get it. You think you are tough but really you're an easy target. There were drugs and gangs. And, yes, I was exploited sexually too."

Ms Francis, of Swain Road, Thornton Heath, qualified as a social worker in her 40s and now runs FAM – Finding Alternative Means – a charity which offers sex education to children and provides support to women struggling with single motherhood or abusive relationships.

So far, she has not spoken out about why she was driven to set up the organisation but now feels the more people share their experiences, the less it will keep happening. "Of course, I was vulnerable then," she said. "But I just did not feel like I was."

More than 30 years on from her experiences, vulnerable children are facing even greater danger than before, according to Frances Le Roy, who works for the NSPCC in Croydon.

"It's everyone's duty to protect children," she said. "If you see something that doesn't look right, you should report it, at least tell someone.

"With all these historical child sex offences cases, people always say 'Oh yes, we always knew he was a bit like that'. People need to raise the alarm now, not 30 years later."

The charity worker, who has focused on child sexual exploitation (CSE) her whole career, said Croydon was struggling with four areas – missing children, unaccompanied minors and asylum seekers, trafficked children and the internet.

"Croydon has the largest number of children in care in the whole of London," she said. "Many of them are from other boroughs who home children here, but it does mean that the police are dealing with much more than other areas.

"The borough also sees a high level of trafficked children compared to other places. We are currently supporting children from Albania and Korea.

"Because of the Home Office, Croydon has more unaccompanied minors than nearly anywhere else and asylum seekers come to get their visas processed here."


NSPCC says Croydon is 'hotspot' for child trafficking THE extent of child-trafficking and children going missing in Croydon has led the borough to be identified by the NSPCC as one of the UK's hotspots for children vulnerable to sexual exploitation. According to the charity, child sexual exploitation varies from one 'opportunist' grooming a vulnerable child to organised rings of perpetrators who supply children to paedophiles. "Prevention is incredibly difficult and often, too much emphasis is put on the child," said the charity's Frances Le Roy. "Essentially, a child should never be in a situation where they can be exploited and it is the fault of the adults who are supposed to protect them if they are. "Most of a child's vulnerability comes from needing to be protected and loved. "It is very rare that a child who comes from a caring, loving and stable family is sexually exploited." The charity worker said she is often faced with children who have begun to realise what has happened to them is wrong. "They may have seen something on the TV, or read something, or someone has said the right thing to them at the right time and they realise they need help," she said. "But when they realise that the person who was exploiting them didn't really love them and was just controlling them all the time, it is almost a worse betrayal than having no one love them in the first place." Grooming often begins when an adult targets a vulnerable child with emotional attention and material gifts, before manipulating them or sexually assaulting them. "This is what I mean by people watching out and reporting anything that doesn't look right," Ms Le Roy continued. "If you know there is a troubled home and a child is seen being picked up by the same car, or if you see young people regularly going in and out of a house, just say something." "If it turns out to be nothing then there is no harm done." However, the abuse is not always perpetrated by adults and can often be peer-on-peer. Hannah Franklin, a colleague at NSPCC, talked at a summit held at Selhurst Park last Thursday about the "party model" where vulnerable children are taken by older teenagers. "Often, the children can be so intoxicated or unconscious that they have no idea what's happened to them," she said. "Then the photos of that night can be used as blackmail for further abuse." Ms Le Roy also said there was an major issue with the exploitation of girls in gangs in Croydon.
Internet 'making it easier for child abusers' THE internet has made it increasingly difficult to protect children from exploiters. Frances Le Roy, from the NSPCC, said there are scores of accessible manuals for paedophiles and perpetrators of paedophile sex rings on how to groom children online. "Once a photo or a piece of information is out there on the internet, that's it, it can never be retrieved," she said. "It makes it so easy for people to identify and target vulnerable children." The highest profile example of this in Croydon came with Stuart Hazell, the man convicted of murdering his 12-year-old step-granddaughter, Tia Sharp, in 2012. During his trial, the court heard how Hazell had taken images from a website regularly visited by paedophiles, and also used his phone to search for "naked little girlies" and "under-age photos" on the internet. Two colleagues at Croydon's NSPCC, Hannah Franklin and Lyn Soh, gave a presentation on the issue of internet grooming to a room full of mothers at Selhurst Park last Thursday. They described how many social media sites were open to anyone, and how exploiters could easily tap in, grooming children before asking them to perform sexual activities and blackmailing them with photos. One mother described how an unknown internet user had taken photos of her young daughter off her Facebook page and used them to set up a fake account under her name. "It has my daughter's name, her face and her details on it and there is almost nothing we can do," she said. Many in the room argued parents should not allow their children to use social medial sites like Twitter, Snapchat, Whatsapp, and BBM until they are 16. The NSPCC recommends parents check their children's internet history to know make sure they knew what sites they were using. Marcia Francis said there was intense pressure for girls to all "look the same" and "prize beauty over brains" on social media sites. "I think it's a social thing that seems to focus on how women look rather than what they are capable of. "And that plays out in social media by girls constantly uploading photos of themselves in ever shorter, ever tighter clothes."

Thousands of Croydon children at risk of being sexually exploited


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