Charity aims to protect girls from the groomers

The Magdalene Group has been awarded £288,000 of Lottery funding.

The Magdalene Group has been awarded £288,000 of Lottery funding. - Credit: Archant

Just a day after an online sexual predator was jailed for 17 years, a Norwich charity has unveiled a project to protest those at risk of internet grooming.

The internet is the new red light district.

That's the warning from the Magdalene Group, a Norwich charity which has secured £288,000 of Lottery funding to launch a major new project aimed at vulnerable young people. The Rose Project – Reaching Out on Sexual Exploitation – will focus on new and innovative ways of contacting young people at risk of online sexual abuse, making use of social media and launching a smartphone app allowing people to get help wherever they are.

The announcement comes just a day after army sergeant reservist Adrian Rose, 36, of Rochester Drive, Westcliffe-on-Sea, Essex, was jailed for 17 years for grooming a 12-year-old girl online.

As reported in yesterday's Norwich Evening News pictured, Rose, who was convicted following a trial at Norwich Crown Court, had been in regular contact with the girl through BlackBerry messaging, posing as an older teenager and gained the girl's confidence before persuading her to meet for sex at a Norwich business park. Two police officers, PC Andy Oliver and PC Jon Graves, were commended by the trial judge for helping to solve the crime.

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The Magdalene Group's three-year Lottery deal will fund a new helpline and live online chat service offering support and advice to young girls and women who feel they risk being exploited, coerced into sex or want to leave the world of sex work. The services will be targeted those most at risk, such as runaways and care leavers, with outreach staff spending time at care homes and hostels to build links and offer support.

'Young girls are entering online sex work through webcams without realising the dangers,' said Suzi Heybourne, director of the Magdalene Group.

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'What may seem a relatively safe way of sex working can soon turn into prostitution as women are encouraged to meet punters face-to-face.

'We want young women to have all the opportunities open to them in life and not enter sex work through lack of lack of skills and education or low confidence and self-esteem.'

Mrs Heybourne said the funding would allow the charity to develop 'cutting-edge digital marketing strategies' to reach young people where they are most vulnerable, and use search-engine optimisation and pay-per-click advertising, along with a smartphone app.

'It's something completely new, and I don't know of another project that is doing what we are.'

The group hopes to reach more than 100 young people over the three years of the project. The Magdalene Group has been working with victims of sexual exploitation for over 18 years, as well as running preventative programmes with young people in schools and youth groups through its Jigsaw Programme. But there is still complacency at the scale of the problem of sexual exploitation, because so little data is available – something the Rose Project hopes to change.

'One thing is sure: we can't suggest that child sexual exploitation is not happening,' said Mrs Heybourne. 'But it is so hidden at the moment.'

Online access at an earlier age and an increasingly sexualised culture mean that young people take part in 'risky behaviour' more than ever, through webcams and the 'sexting' of explicit mobile phone messages.

'We live in an increasingly sexualised society, and young girls grow up thinking it's the norm,' said Mrs Heybourne.

Young people tempted into online sex work by the apparent safety of online work can soon find themselves pressured into meeting clients, and putting themselves at risk.

'Increasingly sexualised behaviour online means that young people are more open to online sexual predators,' she said. 'Those predators are particularly skilled at grooming young people, using coercive techniques and flattery: they'll say what beautiful girls they are and how pretty they look, maybe send flowers or gifts.

'Girls at that age are incredibly influenced by that. We see a prevalence of girls with low self-esteem who are particularly vulnerable to that.'

She added: 'There are some very accomplished people out there who know how to go about online grooming.'

Because the project is broaching new ground, its methods will be refined over the course of the three years using the data gathered.

'We want to engage with the young people where they are: online,' said Mrs Heybourne. 'To do that, we will be monitoring things like which keywords are effective for reaching young people, and how effective our Google ads are.'

The lottery funding builds upon the services of the Magdalene Group, which include a drop-in for women working in or looking to leave prostitution. The charity also does outreach work to connect with women in street-based sex work and supporting female prison-leavers keen to avoid a return to prostitution.

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A Norwich pub is also supporting the work of the Magdalene Group with its 20th annual beer festival this week. The Trafford Arms' Valentine Beer Festival, which started on Monday, is the launchpad event for a year's fundraising for the charity, selected by landlords Chris and Glynis Higgins. The beer festival runs at the pub in Grove Road until Sunday.

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