Supermarket shoppers, delivery drivers, park rangers and bank staff are among those being urged to look out for signs of children being exploited under lockdown – including into county lines drug dealing.
The Children’s Society is calling on the public to report any concerns to the police as part of its national Look Closer Awareness Week, which launches on Monday, supported by the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) and police forces across the country including British Transport Police.
The charity’s Look Closer campaign began last year with the vital message that spotting the signs that a child is being groomed for criminal, sexual or labour exploitation, isn’t just a matter for professionals and parents and that everyone can play their part.
During the awareness week, it is urging the public and people still going out work to keep a particular eye out for children who may be at risk in public spaces which continue to be in use during lockdown.
These include parks, supermarkets, takeaways and banks, as well as in taxis and on trains – all places where it may be easier for criminals to groom and transport children and exploit them into illegal activity in plain sight.
The charity says exploited children and young people may not always appear vulnerable or act the way we expect victims to behave, possibly displaying angry or aggressive behaviour which can be a sign of trauma.
The Children’s Society’s experts say the internet is also a public space, and ahead of Safer Internet Day on Tuesday, 9 February, it is encouraging everyone to look out for signs of exploitation when they are online after evidence of an upsurge in online grooming during the first lockdown. It also wants parents and carers to be alert for risks to their children, including when they are using social media and chat functions in online games.
During the week, staff from The Children’s Society’s national Prevention programme are holding virtual awareness sessions with police officers, hotel and bank staff, as well as local authority and transport sector employees.
Resources including posters, leaflets and social media resources have been shared with these groups as well as taxi drivers, street pastors, housing associations, businesses, and train and bus companies, while the campaign is being promoted on digital billboards at rail stations.
James Simmonds-Read, National Programme Manager at The Children’s Society’s Prevention programme, which runs the Look Closer campaign, said: “Criminals have adapted their methods to continue exploiting children under lockdown at a time when they may be feeling lonely, worried about family finances and have little respite from challenges or dangers at home.
“Children may be particularly vulnerable to offers of cash, gifts, food, friendship and status by perpetrators right now – but this grooming later turns into coercion as criminals deploy terrifying threats and violence to ensure compliance with their demands.
“Under lockdown, these young people and the risks they face are often less visible to professionals like teachers and social workers.
“That’s why we are encouraging everyone who sees children in their daily lives to look out for signs of exploitation and report any concerns to police so these young people can be identified and offered the help they desperately need.
“Places like parks, supermarkets, banks, as well as taxis and public transport, are still in use under lockdown and may be used in the grooming and exploitation of children. We have heard examples of young people being targeted in parks for instance and of supermarket car parks being used to carry out drug deals – with the illicit proceeds then paid into perpetrators bank accounts at nearby branches or online.
“We also want the wider public, as well as parents and carers, to be vigilant for signs of grooming through online platforms like gaming and social media. The internet is also a public space and risks of grooming have increased over the last year as children are spending more time indoors and on devices.”
The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for Child Protection, Chief Constable Simon Bailey, said: “One of the police’s top priorities is to keep children safe and bring those responsible for harming young people to justice.
“Every month law enforcement is protecting more than 1,000 children who are at risk of harm. To do this we rely on the help of members of the public who spot the signs of potential exploitation or abuse.
“The Look Closer campaign is vital in helping people understand those signs and how to report concerns to the police.”
BTP County Lines Taskforce lead, Detective Superintendent Gareth Williams, said: “One of our priorities as a Taskforce is to safeguard the vulnerable children exploited by County Lines organised criminals to get them out of harm’s way and away from crime.
“We support the Look Closer campaign which encourages people on the rail network, be it members of staff or the public, to spot the signs that a child may be being exploited in County Lines activity and report their concerns to us.”
Anyone with concerns that a child may be being groomed and exploited can report any concerns to the police on 101. Dial 999 if there is an immediate risk to a child. If you want to remain completely anonymous, you can contact the independent charity Crimestoppers online or call the helpline on 0800 555111. If on a train you can text British Transport Police on 61016. If you’re a parent or carer looking for advice, or a professional in need of information and guidance you can call the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000.