Police and partners throughout the county shine a light on child exploitation

Bedfordshire Police said child exploitation is happening across the county and it has teamed up with a range of partner organisations in a series of activities to raise awareness and come up with solutions.

Children and young people are often targeted by criminals who sexually exploit them for their own purposes or manipulate and coerce them into taking part in criminality, such as stealing, carrying drugs or storing weapons.

Bedfordshire Police is working with the Bedfordshire Violence and Exploitation Unit (VERU) and other partners for the next project in the Bedfordshire Against Violence and Exploitation (BAVEX) campaign, to shine a light on these issues by helping people to spot the signs of exploitation, report anything suspicious and get support.

It marks a month-long period of activity which will include:

  • BAVEX messaging in places like The Mall in Luton, as well as on Spotify, Mumsnet and Snapchat
  • A series of community engagement events in Luton on 12, 13 and 14 July organised by the Bedfordshire Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) and Luton Borough Council around serious youth violence, backed by Bedfordshire Police
  • A campaign by the national modern slavery charity Unseen raising awareness of child exploitation
  • Online webinars by the St Giles Trust charity for parents and carers in Bedfordshire on 30 June and 8 July
  • A Facebook Live Q&A by the VERU and other Bedfordshire professionals to help parents and carers spot the signs of exploitation on 22 July
  • The Luton News and Dunstable Gazette have also launched their ‘Bin Your Blade’ campaign to raise awareness about knife crime

Festus Akinbusoye, Bedfordshire PCC, said:

“The vast majority of our young people get on with their lives, are focused on their education, future career and extra-curricular activities.

“However, there is a small number who are preyed upon by gangs and exploited for criminal and sex crimes. I want to see parents and guardians become more aware of these risks as well as the support services available to them where there are concerns.

“No one individual or organisation can solve this problem on their own. It is only by us all working together, sharing our knowledge, skills and understanding, that we will be able to make a real difference.”

Exploitation can affect any child and young person

Signs that a child or young person is being exploited include behavioural changes, alcohol and/or drug misuse, self-harm, being absent from school, going missing regularly, acting secretively, and receiving unexplained gifts or money – to name just a few.

Lisa Robinson, exploitation lead for the Bedfordshire VERU, said:

“Exploitation can affect any child and young person, regardless of their background, culture, gender, age or ethnicity, which is why it is so important that both young people and their parents are aware of the signs to spot and where they can get help and support.

“Quite often the young person is involved in exploitative situations and relationships where they receive something, such as gifts, drugs and alcohol as a means of control over them.

“Sexual exploitation can also occur through the use of technology without the young person’s immediate recognition, such as being persuaded to post images on the internet or messages on mobile phones.

“The young person may not always realise they are being groomed or exploited and may even believe they are a willing participant, when they are anything but.

“Over the next few weeks we want to shine a light on child exploitation so young people can recognise the signs, whether it’s in themselves or a friend, and know where to go to get help and support.

“Equally, it is just as important that we raise awareness of this type of exploitation amongst adults, so they also know what they are looking out for, what support is available and how to report any concerns.”

Look out for your friends - graphic

County lines

A third (32 per cent) of UK adults do not know what county lines is, while more than half confess to little or no understanding of what it means, according to new research for anti-slavery charity Unseen.

About a third of parents would not feel confident spotting the signs if their/a child was being used for county lines. While similar numbers (38 per cent) would not know what to do if their/a child had become involved in county lines, or feel confident about who to contact.

The findings are part of a new campaign by Unseen to raise awareness of county lines among parents, carers and other adults.

The research, conducted by poll group Opinium, comes amid a backdrop of growing numbers of children involved in modern slavery in the UK. In 2020, nearly half (47 per cent) of referrals to the government’s National Referral Mechanism claimed they had been exploited as children.

Justine Currell, executive director of Unseen and chair of the Bedfordshire Anti-Slavery Partnership, said:

“Modern slavery takes many forms, including child exploitation and county lines exploitation involving children.

“Of all the types of modern slavery, we were shocked to see awareness of county lines was by far the worst, with nearly one in five people (19 per cent) saying they have never heard of it. This compares to two per cent having not heard of human trafficking, three per cent forced labour, and eight per cent not aware of domestic servitude.”

VERU provides support for all people affected by exploitation, including parents, carers, grandparents and other family members.

If you need more help and support, you can email them or visit the VERU Village website.

To find out more about exploitation, what to look for and how to report any concerns, visit the BAVEX campaign website.