Norwich’s Magdalene Group helping young people at risk of exploitation

People are increasingly being exploited on the internet, not just the streets.

People are increasingly being exploited on the internet, not just the streets. - Credit: PA

Protecting young people from sexual exploitation has never been more difficult, particularly with the rise of the internet and online grooming.

A new campaign spearheaded by The Magdalene Group and aimed at helping young people and women stay safe from sexual abuse and exploitation is being launched at the Forum today by the Rt Rev Graham James, Bishop of Norwich.

The campaign hopes to reach people in Norfolk who are engaged in risky online behaviour, those who are being sexually groomed or targeted, online sex workers and those who feel at risk.

'When I came into post two-and-a-half-years ago I realised that the women we engage with have often been in sex work for many, many years, since they were very young,' said Suzi Heybourne, director of Norwich-based The Magdalene Group.

'Often, the problems these women have are complex and their lifestyles are chaotic and it's harder to reach out to them to offer help and see if there are other choices for them.

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'We thought it would be a good idea to try and reach out to younger people in a bid to try and prevent problems or tackle them in the early days rather than later down the line.'

The Rose Project, which stands for Reaching Out on Sexual Exploitation, is a three-year Lottery-funded scheme which aims to help young people stay safe from sexual abuse, be it online or offline.

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Building on 18 years at the forefront of support and prevention for people affected by sexual exploitation, The Magdalene Group is keen to target those at risk and young girls and women who feel they are being sexually exploited, coerced into sex work or who want to exit sex work.

Suzi explained that sexual exploitation and online grooming had never been so high-profile and that new ways that sexual predators were finding to coerce and entice young people into danger – particularly via the internet – were emerging on a monthly basis.

In partnership with Norfolk police and the multi-agency Norfolk Safeguarding Children Board, The Magdalene Group has identified a hidden area where predators are able to target young people, groom them and coerce them into the sex industry.

'Young girls can find themselves entering into sex work without realising the dangers and what may initially seem a safe way of sex working can rapidly turn into prostitution,' said Suzi.

'Young people will be encouraged to share a private number with clients and to meet them face-to-face and can soon find themselves in danger.

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

Suzi explained that online predators were often sophisticated in their methods, targeting girls specifically and spending time boosting their confidence to the point where they believed they were in a meaningful relationship and were keen to 'please' their partner.

'There are certain ages when girls in particular are very susceptible to flattery and praise and predators know how to approach vulnerable young people and make their approach.'

The group's work in schools has revealed that a shocking 50pc of children aged between seven and 13 would accept a 'friend request' on Facebook from a stranger and that a horrifying 88pc of posed pictures self-posted on social media sites had been mined and shared on parasite pornography sites.

'These pictures are called 'selfies' and are normally posted completely innocently but can be taken from sites and used on pornography sites without the person having any idea what has happened,' said Suzi.

'As part of our education programme we teach young people that nothing they post online is truly private and that every internet connection can be traced and predators can build up personal information about a person over time. We also teach young people about what to do if they feel uncomfortable about conversations they're having online.'

Suzi explained that the increasing sexualisation of society has left many young people confused as to what is and isn't appropriate behaviour and that predators could exploit this confusion, selling an idea to youngsters that fell far short of reality.

With the internet acting as a new 'red light district', it was, she said, essential that parents kept a tab on their children's online activity to ensure they were staying safe.

The Rose Project will deploy innovative digital marketing strategies to reach young people including Google advertisements about The Magdalene Group which will appear above websites offering sexually-exploitative services.

'The Lottery funding allows us to develop cutting-edge strategies to reach women and young people caught up in online sexual exploitation or sex work by using search engine optimisation and pay-per-click advertising alongside creating a smartphone app in order to reach the spiralling numbers affected,' said Suzi.

Adolescents that take risks online by having sexually-charged conversations or swapping sexual images are particularly prone to the increasingly sophisticated tactics of online predators.

In addition to tackling internet issues, The Rose Project will also provide an outreach and one-to-one service for those most at risk of sexual exploitation, particularly care-leavers and young runaways.

'We want more for our young people, for them to achieve their dreams and take all the opportunities open to them.

'Sometimes, young people don't even realise they're being exploited and we want them to know what is and isn't right,' said Suzi, who heads a four-strong team supplemented by an army of volunteers.

'This is a growing problem in Norfolk and one we will be addressing.

'The message is that we're here, we can help and there is always another way.'

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