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Hotels and B&Bs across the county are being visited by undercover police officers accompanied by police cadets to test whether their staff would spot and report signs of potential child exploitation.
Since January, checks have been carried out in Colchester, Epping, Southend and Thurrock, but only 28% of the establishments took action when presented with a situation that should have raised concerns.
The work is part of a national initiative - Operation Makesafe - to help businesses spot and report signs that children and young people are being taken advantage of.
Victims may be trafficked across counties to sell drugs, coerced into sexual relationships with adults or incentivised to commit crime with alcohol, cigarettes, mobile phones or money.
Signs of exploitation to look out for include children or young people checking in with a significantly older adult, guests insisting on paying in cash so as not to leave a credit card imprint, multiple adults and young people checking into rooms, a person who looks fearful, nervous or withdrawn, guests arriving with no luggage, or evidence of sexual activity or drug use taking place in a room.
Every hotel, B&B and guest house in Essex - more than 300 in total - was contacted to make them aware of what they should be looking out for, and told to expect spot checks to take place.
Establishments that failed to report concerns after a test visit have been offered additional training. Repeated failures to meet the expected safeguarding standards could lead to the venue being issued with a closure order.
Despite the mixed results from the latest spot checks, 90% of businesses visited said they were aware of Op Makesafe, and there have been examples of good practice.
Over Easter, a hotel receptionist in Clacton-on-Sea alerted officers when two 14-year-old children checked in with older men. The children were safeguarded while the men were arrested and are currently under investigation.
At a test purchase at a hotel in Thurrock, a receptionist was praised when she felt something was wrong at the check-in desk and took a teenage police cadet into a side room to ask if they needed help.
Detective Chief Inspector Dan Morrissey is the force lead for child sexual exploitation. He said that raising awareness of the issue is vital and that if people have concerns about children or young people, they need to report it straight away.
“Child exploitation is a horrendous crime and hotels and bed & breakfasts are regularly used by perpetrators for the purposes of meeting, grooming and ultimately abusing children and young people. We all need to play our part and help stop this from occurring within our community.
“The aim of the operation is to identify and safeguard vulnerable young people who may be involved in some form of criminal or sexual exploitation, and we’re working with our safeguarding partners in children’s social care in Southend, Thurrock and across Essex to do this.
“We will continue to test venues and we will name and shame if they continue to fail. If people think they’ve seen something they feel isn’t right, report it. Tell us dates, times and descriptions of individuals and we will act on it.”
Information around recognizing child exploitation including links to a free e-learning package covering exploitation awareness can be found on the Essex Safeguarding Children Board's website.
If you have concerns regarding a child or young person, call us on 101 quoting Op Makesafe or contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111. If a child is in immediate danger always call 999.
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