In this interview with Kay Wallace the Police and Justice lead for the NWG – Exploitation Response Unit, we discuss how Project CESIUM supports a better understanding of risks and develops early intervention strategies to combat child exploitation.
What is your background and what is NWG?
Prior to taking up the role at the NWG I was a Detective Inspector in West Midlands Police. I was a qualified and experienced Child Protection Manager, I investigated and managed child abuse investigations for over 26 of my 30 years police service. I was also a senior investigating officer and managed many serious and complex child abuse and specifically Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) investigations, online and on the street.
The NWG Exploitation Response Unit, a charitable organisation, are working in partnership with Trilateral Research and Lincolnshire Police to advance risk assessment practices in public and private sector organisations by applying machine learning techniques to the analysis of big data to prevent and combat child exploitation.
How does CESIUM support the fight against child exploitation?
Through the use of co-design methods and privacy-by-design, Project CESIUM will develop algorithms to identify risks relating to child exploitation including vulnerability to sexual exploitation, and wider criminal exploitation which includes, although not exclusively, county lines and gang violence.
The vision of Project CESIUM is to use cutting edge machine learning techniques to identify children & locations most at risk of child exploitation, as well as those most likely to perpetrate child exploitation, both now and in the future in order to reduce harm and effectively deploy and commission safeguarding services.
What does the NWG bring to Project CESIUM?
As well as my own personal experience of exploitation from a ‘victim’, ‘offender’ and ‘location’ perspective, I also bring the experience of the need for ‘victim’, ‘offender’ and ‘location’ disruption activity, which Project CESIUM offers the opportunity to identify and deliver.
The NWG Exploitation Response Unit has over 14,500 practitioners who disseminate information down through their services, to professionals working on the issue of exploitation and trafficking within the UK. This dissemination network will be of great advantage to the project, when we are looking to identify trends, gather information or share information.
What is your experience of risk assessment to combat child exploitation?
As Police CSE Coordinator for the West Midlands region between 2016-2018, it was apparent there were numerous risk assessments in place for CSE victims, however, there were none to assist police and partners in predicting who may become an offender of CSE or prioritising the risk which offenders of CSE posed.
The CSE coordinators and analysts’ roles ceased to be funded by the Home Office in March 2018, which incidentally led to a gap in the development of a CSE offender risk assessment tool.
However, since my retirement, the picture around CSE has developed, police and partners now talk about ‘exploitation’, therefore there is not only a need for a CSE offender risk assessment tool but an ‘exploitation’ offender risk assessment tool.
Additionally, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are widely talked about nationally as being potential indicators of vulnerability. ACEs alongside Project CESIUM’s application of machine learning techniques to the analysis of big data to prevent and combat child exploitation will assist in tackling exploitation and identifying vulnerability.
Why did you get involved in CESIUM?
I truly believe that the police and partner agencies operate mainly in response to the perpetration of serious and harmful events upon children. There is a widespread need to better understand risk and develop better early intervention strategies.
What are your observations of the recent HMICFS National Child Protection Inspections 2019 thematic report and its relationship to your work in CESIUM?
The report covers 5 key themes:
- The role of leaders and leadership
- The recognition of risk and vulnerability
- The response to risk and vulnerability
- Protecting children from those who pose a risk to them
- The detention of children in police custody
You can see that there is a clear matching between the HMICFS National Child Protection Inspections 2019 thematic report, and the support offered by Project CESIUM. For example, looking at the following key issues and how Project CESIUM can address them.
The recognition of risk and vulnerability
The police do not recognise or evaluate risk to children well enough. Forces usually deal with straightforward cases of child abuse and neglect promptly and efficiently. However, the police often carry out more complex investigations badly and investigations can suffer delays.
Too often, the focus is on the incident, missing the bigger picture. Incidents are dealt with in isolation. Cumulative and escalating risk is not spotted at the earliest opportunity.
The response to risk and vulnerability
Inspectors found increasing evidence of the benefits of protective approaches to working with children. These focus more on prevention and repairing the long-term damage to child victims rather than repeatedly reacting to individual incidents. Too little was done to prevent risk from becoming acute or to repair the damage it causes afterwards.
Agencies share information with each other in various ways across force and partnership areas. Current inconsistencies create significant challenges. The police have an opportunity to use new statutory local safeguarding arrangements, and the parity established with social care and health partners, to build more effective structures and arrangements to share information about risk and make joint decisions about the development of protective plans.
Protecting children from those who pose a risk to them
Approaches to managing risks to children posed by others are inconsistent. The way the police deal with people who pose a risk to children is inconsistent. It often takes too long to examine seized electronic devices. As a result, images and other evidence of abuse can only be found by costly and time-consuming digital forensic examinations. Often, the police take no action to safeguard children until devices have been examined. We found that this leads to delays in children getting the support they need.
The sheer number of complex cases means that some are investigated by officers who don’t have the right training, skills or experience. The outcomes of these cases are almost always worse.
We are aiming to address the above issues by sharing information from police and partner agencies, to use cutting edge machine learning techniques to identify children and locations most at risk of child exploitation, as well as those most likely to perpetrate child exploitation, both now and in the future in order to reduce harm and effectively deploy and commission safeguarding services.