GANGS of men preying on young girls, plying them with drugs, alcohol and gifts before raping, torturing and selling them on to others for sex.
These horrific crimes may have taken place in Oxford, Derby and Rochdale, but the threat from predators looking to sexually exploit children in Essex is real.
In fact, Det Supt Ewen Wilson, the man leading police investigations into sexual exploitation says starkly: “The cases in Derby, Oxford and Rochdale are the tip of the iceberg.
“Someone said to me that child sexual exploitation doesn’t affect Essex. If you think Essex is different to any other county, you are sorely mistaken.”
An illustration of the scale of the problem is given by children’s charity Barnardo’s. Its staff worked with 1,200 youngsters last year who had been sexually exploited.
In Essex, the force has established the Strategic Southend, Essex and Thurrock child sexual exploitation group in which police work closely with councils, social services, schools and other agencies across the county to get to youngsters at risk of, or already being exploited by, paedophiles.
Mr Wilson, chairman of the sexual exploitation group and head of Essex Police’s public protection command, said exploitation can come in many forms and victims can be both young boys and girls.
Mr Wilson said: “Another name for exploitation is child abuse and what we are trying to do is protect vulnerable children from predators–both men and women – who seek to manipulate young people to have sex with them or with other people.
“If you’re a paedophile you have a sexual interest in children, but if you go into a park and attack a child there is a high risk you are going to get caught.
Mr Wilson said perpetrators of child exploitation “gradually break children down” by offering gifts, drink and drugs.
He said: “They make themselves readily accessible to youngsters by being easy to talk to.
“Then they start to give the child benefits to their relationship by, for example, giving them gifts – a mobile phone, money, expensive clothes and trainers.
“Then, over time, they might give them a kiss and gradually, as they continue to break down the barriers a kiss becomes sexual touching and that becomes sex with that paedophile and sometimes others.”
Sexual predators are relying more and more on the internet to pick out their young victims.
They target young users, talking in text speak and in a language appealing to them, to gain their trust before luring them into meetings to be sexually abused.
Mr Wilson explained there was no one specific “type” of person who exploits children for sex.
In some cases, police have come across organised criminal gangs – such as the gang successfully prosecuted by police in Oxford. In these instances, youngsters are lured in by one member, who gains their trust and in some cases acts as a “boyfriend” figure, before plying them with drink and drugs and selling them to others for sex.
Mr Wilson said: “These organised gangs are working across Essex. They come in with the object of procuring young boys and girls for sex and they are running it like a business.”
Police have also come across less organised “groups” of paedophiles who share a common interest in abusing children Mr Wilson said: “These groups are not necessarily organised, but they know each other. They frequent the same places and their aim is to procure sex with young children.
“Over time they might, for example, get to know kids, then organise parties and get the children to come. Then they ply them with drink and drugs and over time the sexual abuse starts.”
Those behind these crimes do not always operate in groups and sometimes work alone. In a similar way, though, they target youngsters, build up their trust and manipulate them with cash and gifts before the abuse begins.
Perhaps the saddest fact around child sexual exploitation is many of the victims are youngsters who are in care.
Mr Wilson said: “It’s not that those people in care homes are necessarily doing a bad job, but, when there are more children to look after, there is less attention focused on any one individual.”
Others vulnerable to the crime are children missing from home and those suffering with learning disabilities.
The exploitation often starts between the ages 12 and 13. Mr Wilson said this is due to the fact that, as youngsters begin their teens, parents and guardians may give them more independence.
But he warned the internet still poses the greatest danger.
He said: “Gone are the days of talking to children about strangers in the park.
“The internet is where this exploitation starts – it starts with a conversation.
“If you are a paedophile and you are offering something to a vulnerable child, whose parents are overbearing or who doesn’t have parents, you have an opportunity to gain their confidence and this is how the exploitation starts.”
Detectives at Essex Police are continuing to target those preying on youngsters.
The force is working with agencies across the county – including social services and schools – to ensure staff are aware of the warning signs a child may be being abused.
While Mr Wilson is keen to point out Essex hasn’t seen a sudden influx of predatory paedophiles, he is also clear people should be under no illusion child sexual exploitation is going on, on our doorsteps.
THINK BEFORE BLOCKING INTERNET ACCESS
THE prospect of your child being sexually abused is every parent’s worst nightmare.
With the internet and social media posing the biggest threat to youngsters from predatory paedophiles, what can Essex parents do to protect their children?
For Det Supt Ewen Wilson, barring children’s access could be the worst move parents make. He said: “You have got to talk to your children, and listen, and understand the way they operate.
“If you block your child’s access to a website or the internet, they will find a way of accessing it you are not aware of.
“Parents have got to be able to talk to their children in a non-judgmental way so they can come to you and tell you what their experiences are if something happens.”