Spotting signs of abuse in plain sight in Telford initiative
A video is played of a group of teenagers playing a ball game in a gym. The people around the table are asked to count the number of times the players dressed in white pass the ball to another member of their team.
"Twelve," is my hesitant reply. "Fourteen," adds the police sergeant opposite. The correct answer is 16. Did you notice anything else. Sheepishly, I confess to not noticing the man wearing the gorilla suit.
The film forms part of the new course being jointly run by West Mercia Police and Telford & Wrekin Council, which aims to help people recognise signs of exploitation.
The point of the video is to highlight how criminal behaviour can often slip through the net when people become too narrowly focused on what they expect it too look like.
The training, which is being made available free of charge to professionals, schools, parents and carers living or working in the area, is designed to help people spot not only potential offenders, but also people who may be at risk from exploitative behaviour.
The course comes as an independent public inquiry is being set up to investigate historic abuse in the borough. A national newspaper has claimed that as many as 1,000 children may have been groomed by sex predators in the town – a hotly disputed figure – and law firm Eversheds Sutherland has been appointed to set up the inquiry.
Instructor Vicki Ridgewell is keen, though, to stress that the course is not purely about sex abuse, and nor is it specifically about children.
"Adults can be vulnerable too," says the retired police constable, who has been running the courses since September.
The course identifies 12 different types of exploitation, including domestic servitude, forced labour and child labour, extremism and human trafficking. Female genital mutilation, sex trafficking, forced marriage, slavery, the use of children as soldiers, financial exploitation and organ harvesting are also highlighted.
Mrs Ridgewell points out that while people have a firm idea of what both victims and offenders look like – victims are usually perceived as being white-working class girls and offenders as Asian men – this is not only a misconception, but can also lead to people missing out what is going on right in front of them because they are looking in the wrong places.
"Boys can be victims, too," she says, playing a video of a girl who tells a harrowing tale of abuse, before morphing into a boy at the end of the clip, saying 'nobody believed me because I am a boy'."
Sex crimes are not purely a male preserve, she adds.
"Women can be sex offenders. Rose West, Myra Hindley, they were prolific child-sex murderers, and people find that more shocking than when it's a man. Why? Perhaps people expect women to be more caring and nurturing."
Mrs Ridgewell says the ready availability of internet pornography is one of the major changes to society since she joined the force in 1987. In her early days in the job, future predatory behaviour would initially manifest itself in low-level offending, such as the theft of underwear.
"Back then, you would know all the knicker-nickers and people like that, but you hardly ever see that today because they can get it all on the internet."
She says historic use of inappropriate language by public service professionals – "judges have been some of the worst at this" – has also led to a culture of apportioning blame towards victims.
"Describing children as 'promiscuous', when they are really 'vulnerable', saying they are 'putting themselves at risk' when what we should really be saying is 'the location is dangerous for children', these all shift blame towards the victim," she says.
"How often have we heard the phrase 'child prostitute'?"
Mrs Ridgewell says the public also has a role in spotting signs of other forms of exploitation.
"With financial exploitation, you might see somebody has a new signature on their card, or they may always be with somebody when they go into the bank," she says.
"With modern slavery, you will find people living without ID, and living in poor conditions.
She also refers to a scheme known as the 'silver spoon', which encourages children being taken abroad for forced marriages to conceal an item of metal cutlery in their underwear.
"You get children aged 11 or 12 being taken out of the country to be forced into marriage," she says.
"The idea is the metal will set of the detectors as they go through airport security, and alert the authorities to what is going on."
The course also involves guide to street slang which is commonly used by gang members – for example, to 'chef' means to stab somebody, bullets are often referred to as 'teeth' or 'bells', and prison as the 'can' or 'pen' – to make it easier to identify young people who may be at risk of being dragged into county lines drugs gangs or the like.
And Mrs Ridgewell says we should also be wary of stereotyping the kind of youngsters we see as susceptible to such exploitation.
"Any person has the potential to be vulnerable, you have to look beyond the obvious," she says.
"Highly intelligent people are often socially isolated, and this can make them vulnerable to exploitation. They may also be prone to making bad choices online."
Councillor Lee Carter, the cabinet member responsible for overseeing the independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation, says both the course itself, and his own experiences of listening to the testimonies of victims, have made him look at his own surroundings in a different way. He says the investigations into child sexual exploitation in the town revealed that a bookmaker – now closed – was a focal point for much of what happened.
"I used to walk past that bookmaker all the time, I sometimes used to go in to put a bet on," he says.
"I have now changed the way I think about things, just walking along The Wharfage in Ironbridge I might see things in cars which seem totally innocent, but it gets you thinking."
Taxi drivers, hoteliers and other people working in Telford's night-time economy have all been given the training in spotting the signs of abuse. But Sgt Ed Pontin says that by extending the course to the general public, it will make people more aware of what is going on in their communities – and hopefully more willing to pass on information.
"We want the public to become our eyes and ears," he says.
Mrs Ridgewell adds: "I talk to them about never dropping their guard in what they do."
*To take part in one of the courses, email firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 101 extension 5627.