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Cab firms across Avon & Somerset failed to recognise child exploitation during undercover operation

Image credit: Pixabay

Plain clothed officers and volunteer police cadets visited taxi offices and taxi ranks in Bristol, South Gloucestershire, B&NES, Somerset and North Somerset as part of an exercise developed in collaboration with local authorities to raise awareness and educate staff on the signs of child exploitation.

Police officers, who work on Operation Topaz – the force’s child criminal and sexual exploitation disruption team – attempted to book taxis to Birmingham or London in cash while accompanied by one of the volunteer cadets.

Out of 25 taxi offices visited, one noticed something wasn’t right with the situation but didn’t know how to safeguard the child. Another driver was able to recognise a child was being trafficked and put appropriate safeguarding measures in place. The remainder failed to spot the signs of child exploitation and allowed the officers to book the taxis.

The plain clothed officers immediately explained the purpose of the exercise after trying to book the taxi.

Before the operation, taxi services were offered training under Operation Makesafe – an awareness exercise developed by West Yorkshire Police, which gives guidance and training to businesses around how to spot the signs of CSE and what action they should take – but few took part.

All services visited have now been offered training to provide their staff with the tools to be able to recognise child exploitation.

Child exploitation happens when a child under 18 is given things like money, phones, clothing, accommodation, and/or affection in exchange for performing a sexual act or dealing drugs.

They are tricked by a person who has power over them because of their age or status in to believing there is a relationship.

Prevention Officer and Coordinator Androulla Nicolaou from Operation Topaz says: “Thousands of children and young people, some as young as 12, are exploited sexually and criminally every day in our communities. This operation, which is the first we have run with taxi services, is just one of the initiatives we’re using to disrupt those who have an interest in child exploitation from carrying out their crimes.

“Taxis are sometimes used by perpetrators to transport young people for the purpose of abuse and exploitation. As a driver or someone who works on a booking desk, you may overhear concerning conversations a young person is having on the phone.

“Drivers are in a unique position to be able to spot child exploitation from occurring, and managers of these services have a responsibility to ensure suitable measures are in place to keep children safe. We look forward to working with these services in the future to make sure their staff have the knowledge and confidence to report child exploitation to us.

“With fewer people using public transport and taxis due to current COVID-19 restrictions, children travelling alone or with an adult that doesn’t appear to be family will be more obvious and easier to spot. By being aware of a few signs, those working in the taxi industry can play a huge part in helping us save a child’s life.

“We’re urging staff and managers to familiarise themselves with the signs of child exploitation and child sexual exploitation and to feel confident they can report these incidents to us.

“There are a few signs those working in the taxi industry can be aware of. These include children under 18 travelling who are:

- Long distances alone, or with an adult who does not seem like family - Travelling at unusual hours (during school time, early in the morning, or late at night) - Travelling to multiple destinations in one night - Travelling long distances and paying for a journey that is expensive and seems unrealistic for a young person to be able to pay for themselves - Paying for journeys in cash or prepaid - Anxious, frightened, angry, showing signs of neglect or displaying other behaviour that makes you worried.

“If it doesn’t feel right. Don’t wait, trust your instincts – this child could be a victim of exploitation. Report it as soon as possible.”

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