CIVIC leaders have today called on city residents to become their ‘eyes and ears’ in the battle to protect Portsmouth’s children from predatory paedophiles and drugs gangs.
Police, schools, the council and the NHS have united in a determined fight to stamp out child exploitation from the city’s streets.
The crime sees youngsters targeted by adults or older peers and forced into criminal or sexual activity.
And now determined city officials are looking to rope in the support of residents in a ‘Portsmouth-wide movement’, bringing down an iron curtain on perverts and thugs.
Rachel O'Reilly, of Safer Portsmouth Partnership, which is behind the call, stressed the city had not reached crisis point yet but insisted people needed to be ‘more aware’ of the crime.
And in a direct message to criminals taking advantage of the city’s children, she said: ‘As a city we’re not having this here. We’re not going to have our children targeted and turned into your drug runners or sexually assaulted by you because we will be watching.’
To kick-start the initiative, Safer Portsmouth Partnership is offering a free training session to up to 120 professionals who work with children, next week.
But parents are also being urged to remain vigilant and watch out for the warning signs their children – or others – could be being targeted.
The plea comes just days before thousands of children break up for their six-week summer holiday.
Kelly Hugget, who works with children who are at risk of exploitation or have experienced exploitation, said: ‘People who exploit children use sophisticated tactics, they really convince children that they are on their side – until the abuse starts.’
Warning signs can range from youngsters spending more time with older teens or adults to secrecy over where they are going, leaving home late at night and being presented with expensive gifts and clothing.
Claudia Villa-Hughes from children’s charity Barnardo’s – which has backed the city’s efforts – said child exploitation can happen to ‘any young person’ but the signs could often be overlooked.
‘We know from our work with young people that it can be subtle things such as vulnerable children living beyond their means, carrying multiple mobile phones and unexplained injuries which can indicate potentially deeper issues,’ she said.
Councillor Lee Hunt, who is in charge of community safety in Portsmouth, said people needed to become ‘empowered’ to help protect children.
He added: ‘It is vital that we raise awareness of child exploitation, including what the signs are and the tactics used to exploit them.’
The safeguarding children workshop for professionals will be held on Wednesday, 9.30am to 1.30pm, at the central library in Guildhall Walk.
For details, see eventbrite.co.uk and search ‘child criminal exploitation’.