Longer read: Sun, sandals and sexual exploitation? Children groomed in Valentines Park, Ilford, during school holidays
- Credit: Archant
As summers go, Redbridge was blessed with a good one.
Sunseekers in their droves lazed about in Valentines Park hoping to soak up some rays while the heatwave lasted.
For the majority of residents, those care-free days have been reduced to a golden-tinged montage. But for a group of young people who were groomed and made to perform sexual acts within the gates of the park, the summer of 2018 changed their lives forever.
After being tipped off by Redbridge police, the Met’s child sexual exploitation (CSE) unit closely observed Ilford over the holidays.
They built up a comprehensive intelligence picture and discovered that a number of secondary school-aged children were being plied with gifts including trainers, jewellery, alcohol and drugs in return for sexual favours both in the park and in the road near Ilford Station.
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What was so despicable about the situation, as if it wasn’t horrendous enough, was that often the groomers were young men who promised the girls they loved them.
One police officer said the victims were “brainwashed” and would do anything for the groomers as they believed they cared.
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He explained that the crime could pass over most residents’ heads, as walking down the street the pair wouldn’t look too out of place compared to the “stereotypical image in most people’s minds of an older man grooming a young girl”.
“The victims are diverse, you get girls and sometimes boys from good backgrounds and from middle-class families,” he said.
“The groomers brainwash them and often have a few girls on the go, so when one of them is busy with mum or dad or doing homework, they will switch to another one – of course, the girls don’t realise they are not the only one.”
The officers launched an operation to cause “maximum disrupting” to the trend, which culminated in a two-day initiative last week in Ilford.
The Recorder joined about 100 police officers, charity workers and immigration personnel and saw the team arrest 15 people in connection with CSE on November 22 and 23.
“CSE is not an exclusive issue to Ilford but we did identify recurring trends there,” said Det Insp Laura Hillier who was running the operation on the ground.
“Ilford has good transport links and you get young people travelling in from Essex and other areas.
“Valentines Park is a big draw, particularly in the summer months and young people gravitate towards it.
“The change from primary to secondary is a particularly high risk time for children.”
As I jump in the car and am driven round key Ilford spots it isn’t long before we spy a group of police officers arresting a man by the Exchange.
They also approach clusters of young people in the High Road, especially when there is one girl and lots of boys, to check it out.
The operation is co-ordinated from both the police station and Redbridge Council’s CCTV room in Ley Street, where staff monitor multiple screens recording footage across the borough.
“We take a multi-agency, multi-pronged approach to tackle this,” added Det Insp Hillier.
“As well as causing maximum disruption to CSE we try to engage with the public and raise awareness about what is going on and the signs to look out for – that is why we brought the police horses out as it is a good way to break the ice.
“We also carried out a two-day victim approach day with charity the Children’s Society and they made up canvas bags to give you, with things like lip gloss and headphones, as an icebreaker to engage with children.
“We explained to them what child exploitation is and encourage them to flag up anything going on.”
After a victim has reported an incident the individual and their family are supported by multiple agencies from the police to social services and charities.
Some families in the borough moved areas to ensure their children escaped from the groomers’ clutches.
“We aren’t complacent, we are working with partner agencies and taking a hardline approach – the overarching thing is safeguarding these children,” added Det Insp Hillier.
“Yes it is happening in Ilford and we are dealing with it, but I would encourage the public to report things that don’t feel right to 101 – often the public can feel like something isn’t right but they are not quite sure what has gone on.”
Natasha Chopra, service manager at The Children’s Society said the charity supported the police by engaging with young people at locations such as the library, takeaways and bus stops about the risk of CSE.
“This horrific crime can happen to any child in any community, so we asked about any concerns they had and explained how children can be targeted and groomed,” she said.
“Perpetrators can be really manipulative and some young people may not realise that they are victims of exploitation.
“It’s therefore really important that not only children but anyone who encounters children in their daily lives is aware of the warning signs that something isn’t right.We highlighted some of these and offered advice on staying safe.
“It’s vital that all young people know that they are not alone and there is support out there for them, and we explained how they can access help from organisations including The Children’s Society.”