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Community / Child sexual exploitation a hidden crime, public protection officer says

Help and support is available for young people experiencing sexual exploitation

THE LEAD officer of Shetland’s public protection committee says the organisation is only seeing the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to instances of child sexual exploitation in Shetland.

Kate Gabb said it is “absolutely” a hidden issue – but that is the case across the country, not just locally.

It comes after a new report on child sexual exploitation in Scotland was published this week.

The document, a joint effort between Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration and the charity Barnardo’s, said that the abuse was happening in most of the country’s local authority areas, including Shetland.

It defined child sexual exploitation as a form of sexual abuse in which a person or people of any age takes advantage of a power imbalance to force or entice a child into engaging in sexual activity in return for something received by the child and/or those perpetrating or facilitating the abuse.

A child is anyone aged up to 18 years old.

The report said that victims may not be aware that they are being sexually exploited, such is the coercive nature of perpetrators and the control they exert over their victims.

Gabb said the numbers of this happening in Shetland is “relatively small” – but it is something which does take place locally.

One issue particularly prevalent in a small community is that some people affected can feel it harder to speak about what is already a tough issue.

“I think it’s difficult anyway to talk about it, but I think small communities maybe make that a bit harder, because the connections that people have, and the fear that people have if they speak out about somebody,” Gabb said.

“I think if you were living in the middle of Glasgow it would be difficult to talk about this.

“I think it’s particularly difficult in small communities because I think there are barriers to young people speaking out, and also I do think there is a tendency, although I think it’s changing, to think that this is a small safe place and things like that don’t happen here.”

Gabb said it is clear from the report that there is not enough accurate data across Scotland on the issue, including in Shetland.

A figure which suggested that 28 young people were at risk of, or were experiencing, child sexual exploitation in Shetland in 2016, was only an estimate, the lead officer said, and should be taken with caution.

Gabb said the committee has its own data but this is not publicly available.

She added that while some people may think of organised crime when considering the term child sexual exploitation, there was no evidence of this locally.

“But we absolutely have individual cases of young people who are sexually exploited, and I think it’s also people’s attitudes towards children and young people, and the language that we use,” Gabb added.

“There are times when children are ‘that’s a bad, awful, wicked child who ran away and did this and did that’, but sometimes we have to go ‘hang on a minute, that child is a distressed child, and we’ve got understand what’s causing that distress’.”

One particular issue in a rural community like Shetland can be people sexually exploiting a young person in return for lifts in areas of limited public transport.

Gabb said the committee has been offering training on the issue of sexual exploitation over the last few years, “and we’re looking at the moment to improve that training and to roll it out further”.

Young people have also received sessions on digital safety, which covers child sexual exploitation and the sort of things they would need to be aware of to keep themselves safe online.

“What we do need to do, and we haven’t done much of, is to try and look at some community awareness because sometimes it’s other people noticing things like ‘there’s that car again picking those kids up’ or ‘there’s all that activity at that address at three o clock in the morning I wonder what that’s about’,” Gabb added.

“People being willing to say ‘’I’ve seen something that slightly worries me, and can I tell you about that’. I think we’ve got work to do around that.”

Gabb, meanwhile, also hailed a recent study published through Shetland Rape Crisis which featured anonymous stories of sexual harassment in the isles.

The report was compiled by 16-year-old Rhea, from Scalloway, and it featured accounts ranging from inappropriate touching to rape.

“I think those pieces of work are brilliant because they open up the discussion and they allow people to talk about it,” Gabb said.

“But I think it shows that we are not different to anywhere else in terms of the issues that we have.”

Shetland’s public protection committee is a partnership with representation from a range of organisations including the council, NHS Shetland, the police, Voluntary Action Shetland and the procurator fiscal.

The committee undertakes all the duties of the child protection committee.

The aim is to make sure all aspects of child protection work are done as well as possible so that children and young people are kept safe from neglect and abuse.


A list of places where a child can get help can be found here.

If you are concerned about a child’s welfare, contact:

  • Duty social work – Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm – 01595 744420 (outside office hours: 01595 695611)
  • Police: 101
  • Children’s Reporter: 0131 244 3780