So plausible yet so evil

CHILD sex abuse has been in the headlines with disturbing frequency over recent months, with a number of distressing court cases both locally and nationally.

CHILD sex abuse has been in the headlines with disturbing frequency over recent months, with a number of distressing court cases both locally and nationally.

It's not surprising that many parents are becoming terrified to let their children out of their sight. But watching your offspring 24 hours a day is impossible – so when should the alarm bells start ringing and what can you do to keep them safe? JUDY RIMMER reports.

IN retrospect, the danger signs were there.

Something was odd about pensioner John Green's keenness for children to visit his home in Felixstowe.

As he mended their bikes and invited them round to play snooker or watch videos, somebody should have wondered why he was taking all this trouble – and what his true motives were.

However, neighbours accepted the 69-year-old as a kindly grandfather-type figure, until the shocking revelations that he had abused five children who visited his home.

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Green has just begun a two-year sentence for his crimes – and Inspector Bob Gooch of the Child Protection team believes the shocking case should serve as a warning to parents to be vigilant.

"With hindsight, it's easy to say people should have noticed something earlier," said Insp Gooch.

"But not only is it the responsibility of parents, it's also the responsibility of the wider community to be vigilant."

The figures of child abuse make worrying reading. In the year 2000-2001, there were 1601 referrals to social services of suspected child abuse, while police received 993 referrals, 95pc of which came from social services.

They embarked on 427 joint investigations, interviewed 219 offenders, and 57 people were charged with 89 offences.

Of the referrals, 37pc involved cases of suspected sexual abuse.

However, the situation has worsened since these figures were drawn up. Insp Gooch said: "The figures have gone up sharply since April last year."

A case like Green's is unusual, but he felt it would be "highly appropriate" to contact police or the child protection team if you see children in a place or a situation which makes you feel suspicious.

Police would far rather check out a false alarm than not be contacted in a situation where abuse is taking place.

"With the service we offer now, we would say if you have concerns, please tell us," said Insp Gooch.

"We can see to the investigation and the background checks and we will do this without disclosing your identity to the person that you have informed us about."

So how do you keep your children safe from somebody plausible like Green, or the other paedophiles jailed in recent weeks, Melvyn Potter and Mark Clark?

"For parents, it's a case of going back to basics," said Insp Gooch. "You need to know where your children are going – if they are visiting somebody, what is so attractive that they need to go there and what is the motive behind the person inviting them?

"There are basic precautions which parents need to take. You don't just take their word for what they are going to do, you check up and make your own inquiries.

"I understand the difficulties with children of a certain age group, but really you need to know where your children are because these people that have ulterior motives will deliberately create an environment to attract children."

He said abusers would often target children who are slightly vulnerable, perhaps going for loners.

Green's case was just one in a number of disturbing recent court cases which have deeply worried parents and left them wondering whether it is safe to let children out of their sight for even a minute.

However, the message from the Suffolk Area Child Protection Committee is that youngsters do need to learn to be independent and take part in clubs and leisure activities.

But it is important that parents check out all these activities first – and ensure proper child protection measures are in place.

"When parents go to check out any leisure activity they should ask if staff are trained in child protection," said Insp Gooch.

He said bona fide organisations would welcome this and be only too happy to explain the measures in place, designed to protect both children and staff. For instance, it is important to avoid any situations which leave a member of staff alone with a child.

So far, 1200 clubs and organisations – ranging from football clubs to majorette troupes – have joined the Suffolk S.A.F.E. scheme since its launch 18 months ago. Certificates are due to be handed over at Ipswich Town in April to people who have undergone training.

Insp Gooch explained that a lot more is involved than just checking whether prospective recruits to a club or organisation have criminal convictions.

"It is not just a matter of checking convictions but asking why do they want to work with children and checking with any organisations they have worked with before."

He stressed that the vast majority of people working with children are completely genuine.

Some parents have become nervous about letting their children join Scouts and other clubs following a case such as that of Peter Mitchell, a former scout leader from Burnham Lodge, Oakstead Close, Ipswich who was two years ago sentenced to eight years in jail for raping and indecently assaulting young boys.

However, Insp Gooch said that the Scouts had stringently overhauled their recruitment procedures and pointed out that, when Mitchell was recruited, there was not so much awareness of child abuse.

He felt parents should not refuse to send their children to clubs, but instead check the clubs out properly.

"I would suggest children need activities and leisure pursuits for their proper development. It's the responsibility of parents to know where they are and check out these facilities and who is running them – and a genuine club will welcome that."

n Do you work with children and young people in a youth or voluntary group? If your club or organisation would like to find out more about the Suffolk S.A.F.E. scheme and request an information pack, please contact Rosie Carter on 01379 672706.

n Do you have concerns about possible child abuse? In an emergency, please contact Suffolk police on 01473 613500. You can also contact the police child protection team on 01473 272841 and social services on 08456 023023.

ChildLine's number is 0800 1111 and the NSPCC helpline is 0800 800 5000.