The rate of violent and sexual offences against children in Lancashire has nearly doubled in under five years.
Lancashire Constabulary says the upturn is likely to be due to an “increase in confidence” amongst victims to report crimes in which they have been targeted.
Figures revealed in the annual report of the county’s safeguarding boards show that there were 203 cases of violent or sexual crimes against children for every 10,000 under-18s during 2017/18. That was an increase of almost a fifth in just twelve months and almost twice as many as the 118 cases recorded by that measure in 2013/14.
The statistics exclude the standalone council areas in Blackpool and Blackburn.
But while the chair of the independent Lancashire Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) accepts that the figures do not necessarily reflect a corresponding increase in the number of offences being committed, she warns that they are probably a “massive underestimate” of the true picture.
“Sometimes what looks like bad news can be good news,” Jane Booth told a meeting of Lancashire County Council’s cabinet, where the LSCB report was presented.
“There’s been continuous improvement in our understanding about how to recognise children at risk of sexual exploitation - and the development of better services. Once there is a service [which is] publicised...you hope you will reach more [victims],” Ms. Booth said.
“The national research would say, probably, that there is no higher prevalence [of these crimes] than there has ever been. But it would also say that even [though these figures] feel enormous, they’re probably a massive underestimate,” she added.
The proportion of child protection plans put in place in Lancashire because of specific concerns about violent and sexual abuse currently stands at 12.6 percent of the total. That is a reduction from 16 percent in 2014, but an increase over the past three years.
The most common reasons for children in the county to be the subject of such a plan are emotional abuse (50.6 percent) and neglect (30.2 percent).
Responding to the figures, Lancashire Constabulary said that it was striving “to improve the way in which it works with children who are victims of sexual abuse and violence, to bring offenders to justice.
“This has led to an increase in confidence from victims that we will be able to help them - and we are now finding that more people are willing to come forward and report what has happened.”
Jane Booth told cabinet members that the authority’s own recent investment in child protection services meant that “it would be very surprising if there weren’t more increases...this time next year”.
“Hopefully, a lot of that [increase] will be going in to recognition of children who are at risk - and have not actually been harmed,” Ms. Booth added. She said that councillors should also expect to see an increase in preventative work.
Leader of the Conservative-run authority, Geoff Driver, said: “We recognise that there have been improvements, but the whole cabinet would also recognise that we still have a long way to go - and we are determined to continue on the right path to see the improvements we want.”
Lancashire Constabulary added: “These are crimes that can affect any child, anytime, anywhere - regardless of their social or ethnic background.
“There are dedicated teams of people working right across Lancashire, from many different organisations, to help victims escape the cycle of abuse.
“The teams share relevant information and coordinate the most appropriate response for each case, which helps to identify and disrupt offenders and identify those who pose the greatest risk. It also means that a whole range of support for children, their families and carers can be put in place where needed.
“The teams work closely with young people who are being exploited to, firstly, get them to recognise that they have been, or are being, exploited and to find ways of helping them to break free from the position they find themselves coerced into.”