The PSNI says it has made significant improvements after it was found to have made no sustained effort to apprehend paedophiles abusing 22 children from Northern Ireland’s care system.
The Safeguarding Board for NI reviewed 22 cases and in a new report has criticised the authorities for not doing enough.
In September 2013, the PSNI said it had begun a major investigation into the sexual exploitation of children who had gone missing from care.
Police identified 22 children aged 13 to 18 who may have been sexually exploited, as part of ‘Operation Owl’.
The Safeguarding Board for NI report found officers were effective in locating the teenagers and returning them to care.
However, it found that police failed to investigate the full extent of the abuse and that their attempts to find and stop the abusers were “limited and inconsistent”.
The main author of the report, Professor John Pinkerton, told the BBC: “Who is it that is prepared to exploit these vulnerable children and how is it that we can best disrupt these people and how if possible and appropriate can we get prosecution of these people?”
In 2011 – two years before Operation Owl – Barnardo’s urged the PSNI to set specific goals to tackle such paedophile gangs.
A two-year research project by the charity found that almost 700 girls aged 12-17 who were known to social services at the time were at serious risk of abuse or were already being abused by gangs of paedophiles.
One victim who had just turned 18 said at that time: “I used to think they’ll give me drinks and drugs.
“They’ll get me out of the home for a couple of nights.... and if I get raped it’ll be all right. But really it wasn’t. Because it just messed your head up so much.
“I was so young when it happened, I didn’t understand what was going on. Then when you get older you realise.”
Professionals said many children talk about the same adult names, suggesting the same paedophiles are targeting different care homes.
Detective Chief Superintendent George Clarke, head of the PSNI’s Public Protection Branch, welcomed the report and the opportunity to examine how police and partner agencies address the issues.
Since Operation Owl, he said, the PSNI has formed the Public Protection Branch “which is now responsible for policy and practice in relation to a number of areas including child sexual exploitation”.
The PSNI has also revised its joint Missing Persons Protocol with the Health and Social Care Trust while information sharing across the safeguarding agencies in order to assess any risk of child sexual exploitation “has also improved greatly”.
The PSNI has accepted the report’s recommendations “and are in the process of implementing them”, he added.