STRANGER danger and online grooming of young children by paedophiles may be what grabs the headlines – but is that where the real risk to young people lies?
The answer is an emphatic ‘No’, according to the detective inspector in charge of the Public Protection Unit at Spalding Police Station.
Children are still most at risk of sexual and physical abuse from people they know – mainly members of their own family.
It is a terrifying fact that DI Guy Leach and his team face on a daily basis.
DI Leach said: “If you look at the statistics in terms of what is reported, children are most at risk from their own families. The same goes for rape victims – very few are attacked by strangers, it’s mostly people they know.
“It’s the family and extended family that present the risk, including step families.”
Investigating these crimes is the bread and butter of the Public Protection Unit.
They are the team responsible for investigating sexual assaults, domestic violence and child abuse - for starters!
And it’s definitely not a job for the faint-hearted as an officer on the team never knows what they will face at the start of each shift.
DI Leach said: “It takes a special sort of person to do what we do.
“We do not second anyone to the team, they all apply to join PPU and everyone is evaluated on their ability to deal with this kind of work.
“We hear some terrible stories, but at the end of the day we are not social workers.
“Public perception can be that PPU is a branch of social services, but we are not.
“We have to make sure what we do is done sensitively and professionally but we are there to investigate allegations.
“We do have to be gentle and structured in our approach to victims to ensure we get the best possible evidence so we have the best opportunity of getting a conviction.
“But we cannot just get a conviction and leave the victim to sort themselves out.
“We work with a number of partner agencies to ensure they get the support they need to come to terms with what has happened.”
Often, seeing the victim in court and found guilty of their crime can help victims get closure, but that is not always possible.
Occasionally, such as when an adult reports that they were abused as a child, there is not enough evidence to get a conviction.
DI Leach said: “We get people come to us to say they were abused as a child. This often happens with family abuse because children often don’t report what is happening to them because that is the way sex offenders work.
“So when they come to us as adults it can be very traumatic for them to relive what happened. Sometimes they have decided to report it but don’t want to go into detail, so it takes a lot of patience to draw out the information.
“Sometimes we get cases that we can’t take to court because the evidence is not there, but we still have to make sure that people are safe and protected.
“When that happens the victim might not get closure and it’s not what they want to hear but it would be worse to put someone on trial and know that we are not going to get a conviction.
“All of these investigations are time consuming and very emotionally draining – not only for the victims but also for the officers involved.
“The job is very frustrating but can also be very satisfying.
“When you see that a course of action has ensured a child is safe and will have the opportunity to grow and develop into a confident, trusting member of society and you know it’s because of what you have done you go home feeling very good about it.”
But the team’s involvement is not always welcome.
They can be called in to investigate a suspected case of child abuse by a variety of sources, such as a school or doctor.
Sometimes these are justified and sometimes the bruises, for example, are really the result of an accident.
Detective Sergeant Sarah Constantine, a member of the team, said: “When we go into families they often feel judged.
“We always go in with an open mind but people are often quite upset that the police and social services are there.
“But by the end of the process, they do tend to be quite understanding.”
So, how at risk are our children?
Probably no more so than they have ever been – it’s just that now we are all more aware of the risks and new technologies have opened up new dangers.
Di Leach said: “We are all better informed than we used to be.
“There are some areas of growth and technology has created new challenges but generally people are more aware and have more confidence in reporting things to us now.
“Legislation such as Sarah’s Law has generated confidence within the community that they can ask questions.
“If anyone has any concerns about children or adults who might be at risk, they should be speaking to us.
“We won’t just go ploughing in with our size nines – we will always treat all inquiries sensitively.”