Keeping children safe from harm this Christmas Image By Rawf8 AdobeStock_171057614

Bedfordshire Police is asking communities to look out for the signs of abuse or neglect over the Christmas holidays as this can be a challenging time for many children.

The NSPCC said that over 31,000 adults contacted them this year to report worries about children living in households with drug or alcohol problems, children seen wearing dirty clothes or appearing to have suffered injuries.

With many children set to be off school now for a number of weeks, senior police officers have urged the public to report information if they notice something concerning.

Detective Superintendent Zara Brown, head of Bedfordshire Police’s Public Protection Unit, said:

“The lockdown periods this year have meant abusers have had more opportunity to control, isolate and cause harm.

“Sadly, we continue to experience a rise in the number of reports of offences against children, both recent and non-recent, including sexual and physical abuse as well as neglect.

“Once children returned to school, it was possible for teachers and other trusted adults to spot changed or unusual behaviour, injuries, or even to hear about difficulties at home.

“Now we are heading into winter, with children at home for the holidays and facing further isolation, especially if there is bad weather, those chances to spot the signs are dramatically reduced, and we must rely on friends, family and neighbours to be vigilant and speak out if they feel something is wrong.

“Even if you’re not sure, speaking out could potentially save a child’s life.”

Neglect can often be spotted in a child’s appearance or demeanour, from untreated illnesses or infections to poor hygiene and fatigue, or constant hunger. It’s also important to note that many of these signs can also be due to families struggling with low income.

It’s quite normal for children to injure themselves whilst playing or exercising, but signs of physical harm are usually quite distinct from everyday injuries such as scraped elbows or knees, and often go hand in hand with other behaviours, such as:

  • Sudden changes in behaviour
  • Withdrawal from usual activities
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Loss of confidence
  • Attempts at running away
  • Rebellious or defiant behaviour
  • Frequent absences from school
  • Bruises, or other marks, which the child is unwilling to discuss

With internet-enabled devices still featuring high on the Christmas lists of many children, parents are also asked to be mindful that abuse doesn’t always take place in person and to speak to their children about staying safe online.

Detective Superintendent Brown said:

“Online grooming and child sex offences are becoming more and more of a threat, especially now that children have more access to the online world.

“We have seen the way that offenders target young children online, groom them and even try to meet their victims in real life. Just because this abuse happens online, it doesn’t make it any less of a crime.

“Any child can become the victim of grooming, no matter their gender, ethnicity or background, and it’s important the child is confident to speak out and tell someone they trust.”

The signs of grooming aren’t always obvious and groomers will often go to great lengths not to be identified. If a child is being groomed they may:

  • Be very secretive, including about what they are doing online
  • Have older boyfriends or girlfriends
  • Go to unusual places to meet friends
  • Have new things such as clothes or mobile phones that they can’t or won’t explain
  • Have access to drugs and alcohol

If you know a child you suspect is being abused, then it is important to contact an appropriate authority as soon as possible.

You can report using the online reporting tool on the Bedfordshire Police website, or you can also call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.

The NSPCC website is a great resource for advice and guidance, or call 0808 800 5000, email help@nspcc.org,uk or fill in the online form.

More information about child protection is available on the force’s website information pages.