Team's task to protect our children
IN every city, town and village of Devon, child exploitation is going on behind closed doors. And the problem is bigger than most people imagine, says one of the leading detectives at Devon's Child Exploitation Unit.
Some of the images the team deal with are nothing short of "horrific" and many of the cases they investigate are distressing to say the least.
The importance and presence of the unit has been ever-increasing since its inception nearly 15 years ago. And since the revelations stemming from the Savile case came to the world's attention around four months ago, the team says it has seen an increase in the number of reports it receives – something they view as a positive step.
Detective Inspector Simon Snell, (pictured) who has been with the unit 10 years, told the Echo: "Referrals from the public are quite high – the public are becoming more aware how bad this is.
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"As you will have seen with the Jimmy Savile enquiry, we now believe children – that is a key thing.
"If any good is to come of this investigation, it is that people are reporting sexual abuse to us and secondly, we are learning as an organisation that we must believe what children are telling us – that is a significant change."
He added: "Our referral work has probably gone up by about 50 per cent in the last five to six months – which is really good.
"In my opinion, this abuse has been happening all the time, people are just reporting it more now."
The unit have confirmed they are involved in Operation Yewtree – the Metropolitan Police's investigation into Savile – after it was revealed that three of the shamed TV presenter's hundreds of victims are from Exeter.
A further two are from other parts of Devon.
The team regularly work with the FBI and their investigations can be worldwide.
"We quite often liaise with other countries in dealing with offenders," said Det Insp Snell.
"We do a lot of work with the FBI.
"That is the sort of world we live in – the internet knows no bounds."
The figures around the number of offenders and the age of victims are both staggering and shocking.
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) estimates that between 50,000 to 60,000 people in the UK possess indecent images of children. Around 70 per cent of the children in the images the Devon-based team see are under 10 and 90 per cent of the victims in the images are female.
As internet usage has become more prolific over the past 15 years, unfortunately so has child exploitation.
And the unit, which was started in 1998, has responded by growing in size and experience.
"The unit has grown in what it deals with over the years and now we are known as the force Child Exploitation Unit," said Det Insp Snell.
"The name is to reflect the changes in what we do and how the crime has changed over the years. The team is very experienced. They deal with the most horrific images you can imagine.
"And now, because of broadband, we deal with a lot of video clips of the abuse of children taking place."
He added: "Many academics say that child exploitation hasn't increased.
"Where I might disagree with them is that the internet has made certain people more susceptible to child abuse.
"A lot of people say it never happens in Devon and Cornwall, that we live in such a beautiful place. But in every town, city and village, there is child exploitation taking place."
Det Insp Snell says there is a strong link between child exploitation and children who regularly go missing. Awareness and spotting the signs are key to identifying victims of child exploitation, says Det Insp Snell.
Children's charity Barnardo's lists the telltale signs to look out for. They include:
Regularly missing school
Appearing with unexplained gifts
Having older boyfriends or girlfriends
Drug and alcohol misuse
Displaying inappropriate sexualised behaviour.