Yorkshire’s largest police force is carrying out 180 separate investigations into child grooming - nearly three times as many as a year ago.
West Yorkshire Police, which said this time last year that it had just 65 probes into ongoing abuse under way, has identified 121 victims and 157 perpetrators of ‘current’ child sexual exploitation (CSE) county-wide.
It has also identified 190 perpetrators and 146 victims of historic abuse during its 40 investigations into ‘legacy’ cases, carried out as police nationwide come under intense pressure to tackle abuse in the wake of the Rotherham and Jimmy Savile scandals.
The dramatic increase has been praised by a leading charity, which warns that every child in the country is “potentially at risk of online exploitation”.
Despite the force facing dramatic budget cuts, extra funds been invested in West Yorkshire to help police deal with CSE.
The force has employed 24 civilian investigators, many of who are retired detectives and cost less to employ than warranted officers, dedicated to looking into historic offences.
They are helping the existing officers by gathering statements and evidence relating to older cases of alleged abuse, many of which date back to times when police lacked today’s techniques to investigate grooming and did not view it is a priority.
This allows the force, which has lost 1,000 officers since 2010, to carry out time-consuming historic investigations while still looking at current cases, according to the Police Federation.
In a report by Detective Chief Inspector Sue Jenkinson of West Yorkshire Police, CSE is described as being “a significant and increasing threat”.
She said: “The levels of information, intelligence, incident reporting, referrals and investigations linked to CSE both in respect of contact and on-line offences continues to grow.
“As we achieve success and victims feel more confident in coming forward and with use of improved technology, particularly in the area of on-line offending involving indecent images of children, we can anticipate further increases in demand.”
A total of 52 people have been charged with CSE related offences in the last year in West Yorkshire, with trials relating to a total of 40 alleged abusers from Keighley and Calderdale due to take place in November and the New Year respectively.
Child sex abuse scandals in Rotherham and Oxfordshire prompted police forces to be told that they must prioritise sexual exploitation as a “national threat”.
This means such abuse will be treated in a similar way to serious and organised crime, with police forces, chief constables and police and crime commissioners having a duty to collaborate on child protection.
West Yorkshire Police said CSE was now a priority and that the force was working to raise awareness through media campaigns and efforts to highlight offences carried out online.
It said in a statement: “Significant work has also been ongoing with partners to encourage victims to come forward and report. This has included work in schools and communities.
“The force will continue these methods to give confidence to victims and adults to come forward and report child abuse.
“The force’s key priority is tackling CSE and as such safeguarding units have been restructured to give the capacity and capability to not just reactively tackle CSE but also proactively.
“In addition to the work locally there have been a number of high profile investigations across the country that have again given victims of child abuse who are now adults the confidence to come forward.”
The force declined to reveal how many of the investigations were linked to each other or how many gangs of abusers were thought to be operating in the county.
But it said its ‘legacy’ investigations, meaning those into offences that were reported more than 12 months after they took place, were looking into abuse dating back as far as the 1960s.
It said it had invested significant time in promoting online security campaigns for children and adults, as “intelligence suggests that social media is one of the methods perpetrators are using to make contact with potential victims”.
Despite the extra investment, a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) in January said it was “concerned about the standard” of probes into child sexual exploitation by West Yorkshire Police.
It said investigations by the force in this area are often not good enough and hampered by delays.
Police commissioner Mark Burns-Williamson said: “Making CSE and sexual abuse crimes a priority for the police and investing in its investigation will lead to more perpetrators being brought to justice and increase the confidence of victims to come forward, to make sure they are heard and properly supported.”
A spokesperson for children’s charity Barnardo’s said: “We see first-hand the emotional scars and lasting trauma this terrible crime has on children, adults and their families, so we are pleased that West Yorkshire Police is prioritising CSE and that they have assigned resources to tackle it proactively.
“We support police forces around the country to better understand the complexities of grooming and exploitation and the risks children face today, especially as every child is potentially at risk of online exploitation.
“It’s crucial that children’s voices are heard and everyone must work with children and young people to provide a response that will benefit every child, not just in theory, but in reality. Children should not be treated as second class citizens when it comes to getting justice.”
Nick Smart of West Yorkshire’s Police Federation, which represents rank and file officers, said the Home Office has “no real understanding” of the resources required to properly investigate CSE and other safeguarding cases.
He said: “The force has had the foresight to invest in retired officers with specialist skills to look at these complex and time consuming historical allegations.
“Rather than reduce the force’s ability to deal with ‘here and now’ cases and have to move officers from these current live investigations it is a sensible move to protect the force’s ability respond to current and new cases.
“The demand for our services in this area has increased, as it it has with most areas of policing. Now is not the time to cut police officers numbers, when demand for our services as never been higher.”