'The biggest scars that never heal are the ones you never see'
The public protection unit at South Wales Police’s western division deals with a side of policing the public doesn’t often glimpse — from tackling domestic violence to finding missing people and managing sex and dangerous offenders. In the first of a special series, the Post looks at the unit’s fight against the online grooming and exploitation of children.
AS a parent, if a stranger knocked on your door one night and asked to spend time alone with your kid in their bedroom, would you let them in?
Put in those terms the answer seems obvious, but police say this is exactly what can happen when youngsters go online — and parents need to be aware of the risks their children face from online bullying, blackmail and sexual grooming.
Part of the work of the western division's public protection unit is tackling the threat posed by sex offenders using the internet — and especially social media sites and chatrooms — to find and to groom young victims.
Detectives say they are seeing cases every day of youngsters in Swansea, Neath and Port Talbot falling prey to online predators — and with even very young kids spending an increasing amount of their time on the web, it is an urgent subject.
South Wales Police detective inspector Andy Hughes said: "If a complete stranger knocked on your door at 8pm and asked to spend time with your daughter or son in their bedroom with the door locked, would you let them in?
"But that is what is happening when youngsters interact with strangers online, and we need to get that message out to parents."
The detective shows me how easily — and quickly — a child can become ensnared in something very sinister, with a printout from a chatroom conversation.
The young girl — from Swansea — innocently became involved in a chat with a man on the other side of the world, and in less than two minutes had sent him a photograph of herself.
Fortunately in this case the child's parents found out what was happening and police were called, but detectives say it is all too easy for predators to groom children into sending pictures and into becoming involved in something far more dangerous and damaging.
Detective inspector Brian Hurd said: "It is about power and control, the psychological abuse of victims who share images and then get blackmailed into sending more and more inappropriate images.
"There is fear of what will happen if they stop sending images, and offenders exert control over them.
"The biggest scars that never heal are the ones you never see.
"Mobile phones play an important part in this, and often images can be sold or traded online. If you share an image online it is there for life, potentially for anyone to see."
He added: "Youngsters need to say to themselves — 'would I be happy to show these pictures to my parents?' before they share them."
The public protection unit works closely with the National Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre in tackling the threat posed by grooming, using a mix of good old fashioned detective work as well as cutting edge technology to track and catch offenders.
The head of the unit, detective chief inspector Jane MacKay, said parents need to be aware of the risks, and help to guide their children through the online world.
She said: "The key message is that parents need know about the risks and to be open — parents need to talk to their children about being safe online; about what is appropriate and what is not appropriate.
"And as far as possible there needs to be parental control over what their children are doing online.
"Parents need to be aware that there are people out there who can lure children into risky behaviour when they think they are safe upstairs in the bedroom."
DI Hughes added: "These days children are far more willing to speak out about physical abuse or contact — they know their voices will be heard — and because of that paedophiles are increasingly going online.
"This isn't just a problem in one area — it can happen to all kinds of families all over Swansea and Neath Port Talbot."