North Yorkshire’s police commissioner has welcomed moves to reopen schools after revealing evidence suggesting offences against children have soared during the pandemic.
Ahead of many children returning to classrooms from March 8, North Yorkshire Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner Julia Mulligan said the force and victims’ support services had seen “some very significant shifts in demand” over the last year.
Mrs Mulligan told a meeting of the county’s Police, Fire and Crime Panel referrals to charity Parents Against Child Exploitation, which supports parents across the North of England of children affected by sexual abuse or criminal County Lines gangs, had soared by 150 per cent.
The charity says the pandemic has seen a shift in the way children are targeted, with some youngsters encouraged to dress up as joggers to deliver packages, while others are being targeted on social media apps instead of parks.
It has highlighted a huge increase in the number of children were being targeted online for both criminal and sexual exploitation, with more offenders asking for inappropriate images and engaging in abusive online conservations with children.
The commissioner said: “We think this is down to parents having more awareness of what their children are doing because they are spending more time at home and online. We know that increased time online can increase their vulnerability.”
She said referrals to Independent Domestic Abuse Services, the largest specialist charity in Yorkshire supporting anyone affected by domestic abuse or sexual violence, had almost doubled since last March.
The meeting was told the rising frequency of violence in the home had been aggravated by a courts process slowed by social distancing requirements, increasing the complexity of cases.
The panel heard specialist counselling services had also seen demand on them rise by three-quarters.
Mrs Mulligan said victim support officers had found themselves having to speak to people about the impact of Covid, rather than just the impact of crime.
She said: “That suggests that there are going to be significant issues around mental health going forward.
“These issues are making the impact of crime worse for victims, it’s increasing the isolation that victims feel and in some cases it means that they’ve got increased exposure to the offender, the domestic abuse perpetrator, increased levels of anxiety and the time it is taking to progress cases.”
The commissioner said significant reductions in referrals to sexual assault services, with children services referrals down by 40 per cent, had also raised concerns and questions.
She said referrals to child exploitation services may have fallen as schools were closed. Her comments follow an Interpol report which found child exploitation had risen during the pandemic due to limited access to community support services, child care and school staff who often play a key role in detecting and reporting cases of child sexual exploitation.
The same report found there had been increased discussions on the Darknet as sex offenders had more time to create forums during the pandemic.
Mrs Mulligan said the fall in child sex assault cases could be due to quite a lot of abuse being perpetrated by people close to children, adding: “It will be really good to see children going back to school.”