Doncaster children as young as 11 are sending sexually explicit messages to each other - and the problem is growing.
The extent of the problem has been revealed in a new report from the Doncaster Safeguarding Children Board - known as the DSCB - which has blamed a rise in the number of the incidents for an increase in the number of referrals relating to child sexual exploitation reported to police in the borough.
And it has also prompted a call from a leading children’s protection charity for parents to make sure they know what their children are doing online.
A report from the board, which has just been published, stated that an analysis provided by a multi-agency child sexual exploitation team has identified that the increase is mainly around the internet and sending images by children aged around 11 to 13.
It added: “This increase is not replicated in Sheffield, Barnsley and Rotherham.”
A spokesman for the board confirmed this referred to making and sending of explicit images.
Concerns over the problem have led to a new pilot scheme being introduced into schools in Doncaster.
Following the first signs of the increase in referrals, the programme which seeks to improve awareness of child sexual exploitation, grooming and internet safety has been piloted in four primary schools in the borough.
Health officer for the Doncaster CSE (Child Sexual Exploitation) team, Jayne Pezzulo said the scheme has been ‘very successful’ and is now set to be rolled out to another eight schools across the borough.
She said: “The programme targets groups of girls and boys in year five and six who are aged between nine and 11.
“It aims to address CSE and grooming which girls and boys are equally at risk of. It’s called ‘alright Charlie’ and has been funded by the Department of Education.
“As part of the programme every child who takes part is given a workbook to use during the 90 minute session and afterwards.
“We ask each child who takes part to tell us a trusted adult they would talk to if they were ever to be groomed or become a victim of child sexual exploitation.
“We also ask them how they would explain it if they did feel unsafe or worried about that.”
Independent chairman of the DSCB, John Harris, said the increase highlighted in the report referred to a spike seen in March.
He says that on an average month between 20 and 25 CSE referrals are made to the police in Doncaster every month, but in March this rose to over 30.
He estimated that around a quarter of those referrals would have related to children aged between 11 and 13 sending images on the internet.
Mr Harris said: “DSCB will continue to seek regular assurance to ensure this work remains on track and that the children and young people of Doncaster continue to have a high quality response to CSE.”
“Increased professional vigilance and effectiveness in recognising CSE has resulted in an increase in referrals to South Yorkshire Police.”
He said official agencies including the police and the council had made progress tackling child sexual exploitation.
Measures that have been brought in include:
l Increased training for children and young people, parents and professionals to ensure they understand the risks associated with CSE.
l Increased training for taxi drivers and improved links to the retail sector.
l A wider range of data and intelligence.
l Improved response to young people who go missing who are likely to be vulnerable to CSE
l Improved processes to enable partners to contact to South Yorkshire Police
l Focusing on stopping and prosecuting operpetrators.
He added: “Case audits by DSCB show that victims and those at risk of CSE receive effective support – a view confirmed by OFSTED in a recent monitoring report.”
Sexting among young people is a worrying trend that has sparked a campaign from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children who tour the country’s schools creating awareness of sexting, internet safety, grooming and CSE.
Sexting is when someone shares sexual, naked or semi-naked images or videos of themselves or others, or sends sexually explicit messages,
Helen Westerman, campaigns manager for the NSPCC in the North of England said: “We have all taught our children not to speak to strangers, and the online world is no different.
“Talk to your child and get to know their online world, what apps they are using, who they are talking to, learn how to use parental controls and talk to your child about who they can ask for help.
“Parents who would like more advice on internet safety can always go to our website for help, we have also partnered with O2 to ensure advice is always freely available for parents on safety controls and being Share Aware.
“Children who are worried about anything can contact Childline on 0800 1111, and parents who have any concerns can contact 0808 8005002.”
Conduct on the internet was also found to be an issue last January when seven Doncaster secondary schools issued warnings to their students over the use of so-called ‘gossip girl’ social media accounts where allegations relating to the sexual conduct of students were posted.
The anonymous rumour accounts, appeared on social networks including Facebook and Instagram, detailed the alleged sexual conduct of students at Hall Cross Academy, Don Valley Academy, Ridgewood School, Outwood Academy, Balby Carr Academy, Danum Academy and McAuley Catholic High School.
South Yorkshire Police were brought in to Danum Academy and McAuley Catholic High School over the use of such accounts, where pupils have also been warned that the creators of, and those who comment on, such accounts could face criminal charges.