‘I FELT SURROUNDED BY DARKNESS’
As the PSNI launch a new probe into child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland, Jacqui Montgomery Devlin from Barnardo’s’ Safe Choices tells Lucy Gollogly that victims often feel anger, frustration, shame and mistrust
One young girl who had suffered child sexual exploitation described her experience as “a very small thumbnail surrounded by darkness”.
She is just one of the children that Jacqui Montgomery Devlin from Barnardo’s Safe Choices service tries to protect from exploitation.
She said: “One of the younger children we worked with described how she felt when this was happening to her. “She described it as a very small thumbnail surrounded by darkness and that’s what she drew – because often these children can’t verbalise how they are feeling or what is happening to them. “I thought it was quite significant and poignant – she felt surrounded by darkness, blackness, and had a sense of powerlessness.”
The majority of young people Safe Choices work with are aged between 12 and 16, although some are just nine or 10.
Most are girls, although Ms Montgomery Devlin said she believed boys were also being targeted.
She said victims often feel anger, frustration, shame and mistrust, especially as they frequently and mistakenly believe they were to blame in some way.
“They feel that because they went to this party or took the drugs and alcohol off this person or they sent these images that they are to blame – so they have a lot of shame and it makes it very difficult for them to talk initially.” Ms Montgomery Devlin said child sexual exploitation remained a “hidden problem” and something that all agencies working with young people need to be actively looking for.
“We would talk about lifting the stone and looking underneath and you have to do that proactively to see it and really grasp the scale and nature of the problem,” she said.
A major police investigation into the issue is currently under way, something that Ms Montgomery Devlin welcomed. Officers are investigating reports that 22 teenagers, who went missing from children’s homes, were sexually exploited. There have already been more than 30 arrests.
“It’s good that everybody is recognizing that it is an issue in Northern Ireland. I don’t think any agency is denying any responsibility now. They are all coming on board – they see something needs to be done,” she said.
Two years ago, a Barnardo’s report called Not A World Away found two-thirds of girls in care homes were at risk. It made a number of recommendations, including that tackling child sexual exploitation be made a priority in the PSNI’s Policing Plan.
That did not happen and there has been criticism from some quarters that action has been slow in coming – the chair of the Stormont health committee, Maeve McLaughlin, last week said of the current investigation: “We need to have been doing all of this much, much better, much, much earlier.”
The Sinn Fein MLA added: “There are lessons for the PSNI, lessons for the minister for justice and certainly for the community at large.” There have been suggestions that paramilitaries are involved in child sexual exploitation.
Ms Montgomery Devlin said it was difficult to confirm this, but that the perception could be as damaging as the reality. “Perpetrators of this abuse will use real power or perceived power to groom, threaten and coerce their victims. “They might have said to a young person, I’m such and such in whatever paramilitary group – whether they are or not might be irrelevant if that is sufficient to make that young person scared and coerce them into continuing whatever they are being coerced into doing.”
Meanwhile, the charity Voice of Young People in Care (VOYPIC) has appealed for an end to the squabbling among politicians over the child exploitation issue.
Chief executive Vivian McConvey said: “We need the energy around that debate maintained but focused on the young people and focused in making the systems work.” “I take heart from the fact that a conversation has now started so that we can better understand child sexual exploitation. That conversation has to continue and we have to bring about change so that we identify young people at risk faster and we’re more effective in supporting them,” she added.
• If you need help or support or you are concerned that a young person is being sexually exploited, call Barnardo’s on 02890 658 511 or the NSPCC helpline on 0800 389 1701.
• You can also report the matter to the PSNI directly on 0845 600 8000 and you will be put in contact with a specially trained police officer who will speak to you confidentially.
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