Child sexual abuse victims could face serious consequences due to “concerning gaps” in police practices, the Criminal Justice Inspection (CJI) has found
Investigators found some high-risk children were not recorded on the system used by the police.
CJI Chief Inspector Jacqui Durkin said this left frontline officers “unaware of the wider risks that existed”.
The PSNI said it welcomed the report “without reservation” and had already begun implementing its recommendations.
The report also highlighted many cases where officers and prosecutors were “dedicated and tireless” in helping children at risk.
Published on Tuesday, it described child sexual exploitation as an “uncomfortable truth and a reality that we must deal with” and concluded there was a “lack of clear leadership and strategic direction” in tackling it.
Ms Durkin said: “We still do not have a clear picture of the scale and nature of child sexual exploitation occurring in our community.
“Victims need to see the criminal justice system is focused on the perpetrators’ conduct rather than their behaviour.
“Our approach must ensure children who have experienced child sexual exploitation are supported, believed and they are not expected, as one victim put it, to be the fix.”
The chief inspector recommended that police establish a “problem profile”, pulling together information from health, social services, education and other partners, to “enhance knowledge about what is required to effectively disrupt perpetrators and protect children”.
The issue requires a “strategic joined-up approach”, she said.
In highlighting the “positive work” carried out by many in the justice system, Ms Durkin added there were “inconsistencies” in how the PSNI’s public protection units dealt with exploitation “as a result of a lack of resources and the level of supervision applied”.
Actions to safeguard children and disrupt suspects “were not always apparent” from the cases reviewed by the CJI, the report found.
Ms Durkin said: “These issues were raised with the police at the time of the inspection fieldwork and I acknowledge and welcome the work already under way within the PSNI to address these gaps in operational practice and the inspection recommendations.
“Frontline police officers need to be supported to develop greater professional curiosity so they look beyond a child’s immediate behaviour, such as going missing or suspected offending, to find out what is really going on and identify children at risk of or experiencing sexual exploitation.”
Responding to the report, PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan said the safeguarding and wellbeing of children and young people in Northern Ireland was “a key priority”.
He said: “We are committed to delivering a service which meets the needs of victims, supporting them through an often stressful and traumatic experience, and can often continue beyond the criminal justice process.”
ACC McEwan said some of the recommendations have been fully implemented since the inspection started in 2018, however, “others are in progress”.
He agreed with the CJI that “joined up working, timely sharing of information and collection action” were needed to protect victims of abuse.
“It is also vital that the public understand the issue of child sexual exploitation, know the signs to look out for and know where to go for help,” he continued.