A staggering 80 cases of suspected child sexual exploitation have been reported to Preston detectives in just three months.
A specialist team, which was set up to deal with grooming and child sexual exploitation, has seen a significant rise in the number of referrals since it was formed 18 months ago.
Last week, Mohammed Moosa, 24, of Holmrook Road, Deepdale, Preston, was given a three-year jail sentence after pleading guilty to abduction and sexual activity with a 13-year-old girl.
Moosa was snared after the Deter Team, made up of a team of experts including police, social workers and charities, was put on the case of two young girls who had been reported missing from home.
The team traced Moosa and a second man, Faisal Ghani, who admitted abduction, to a hotel in Blackpool where the girls were found to have had drank large amounts of alcohol and had taken drugs.
The case preceded a further 79 referrals which were taken to the Deter Team between the start of April and the end of June.
Speaking to the Evening Post, a victim’s mother said she had no idea her daughter was being targeted until it was too late.
But DI Jonathan Holmes, head of the public protection unit at Preston police, said having a specialist team means families are now better equipped to see the warning signs.
He said: “We have recently observed an increase in the reporting of this type of crime, which we have attributed to better scanning methods and increasing work with parents.
“We now have a dedicated team to deal with this kind of sexual exploitation.
“Part of that team’s role is to work with partner agencies and to increase awareness in the community of this type of crime and we have seen an increase in reporting of this type of crime as a result.”
Many of the cases which the team has investigated have followed a pattern which sees the offender form a ‘relationship’ with the young victim by showering them with gifts to give them a sense of independence.
This leads to many of them not realising they are being exploited, believing instead they are in a meaningful relationship.
He said: “This type of crime is likely to be under-reported.
“The nature of the crime is such the victims do not appreciate they are being victimised.
“This is because they are being subject to grooming which will take the form of gifts, alcohol, mobile phones or cash.
“The offender often grooms the victim over a lengthy period of time in order to create a situation where the victim is not necessarily aware of what’s happening to them.
“The effect is they themselves may not report any offences because they feel they are in a close relationship with the offender.”
While the number of cases being referred to the team has increased, DI Holmes claimed it was too early to say whether it is a major issue.
He said: “The Deter Team is still establishing itself but in three or four years’ time we will be able to see where reporting is.
“It is a bit early to say how big a problem it is, but we are certainly getting increasing reports and are keen to take positive action against offenders whenever we get that information.”
While many victims initially may not realise they are being abused, DI Holmes said the offenders should not be regarded in a different light to any other child sex offender.
He said: “These people are sex offenders. In my view, for an adult to have sex with an adolescent is paedophilic behaviour. It is done through a grooming process.
“Typically, they might be in their early teens. Mohammed Moosa is 24 and he was having sex with a 13-year-old.”
Charity Crop (Coalition for the Removal of Pimping) is one of the groups which works with the Deter Team to support the parents of child sex victims and it has dealt with more than 500 cases in the past five years.
Cat Tatman, a parent support worker, said the Deter Team means Preston is in a better position than many parts of the country, but there is a long way to go.
She said: “We are still at the point where we are seeing the tip of the iceberg.
“If you have one focused effort, as in Lancashire, the perpetrators are often one or two steps ahead and often push their operations out of the county boundaries.
“In Derby, they (police) were getting very good at picking kids up in the city centre, so they were moving out to Derbyshire.
“It is certainly not a new problem, but it is something we are just becoming aware of the level and extent of it.”
The Deter Team also includes a detective sergeant, three detective constables, one local intelligence officer, three social workers, members of the Children’s Society and a Group Intervention Panel.
Social workers can refer parents, whose children are suspected of being groomed in the Preston area, to SEEN (Sexual Exploitation Ends Now) which provides advice on what signs to look for and support for the victims.
To contact the Deter Team during office hours call 01772 209122 or out of hours there is a bounce back service which can be accessed by texting 66247 and starting the message with the word Deter.
Alternatively, call Preston police on 01772 203203.