The charity Barnardo’s recently announced a three-year long campaign called Cut Them Free, which aims to help parents protect their children from being groomed by sexual predators.
Singer Heather Small, a long-time supporter and proud ambassador of Barnardo’s has visited various projects and worked with victims of child sexual exploitation. She tells 'The Voice' why she feels honoured to be working with the charity.
What inspired you to become an ambassador for Barnardo's?
‘The inspiring thing about Barnardo’s is that it’s a charity that makes a real difference. I’ve seen at first hand some of the work they do and the difference it can make to children’s lives. It’s a charity that has moved with the times without forgetting old school values.’
What does being an ambassador mean to you?
‘Besides being an honour, it’s a charity that I grew up admiring. I think it’s my role to help raise awareness on an ongoing basis of the issues facing so many of the UK’s disadvantaged and vulnerable children and young people.’
What have you learned from your experiences about abused children?
‘The children and young people that are the victims of sexual exploitation often don’t recognise that they are being exploited. The perpetrators view these children as a big money making opportunity, and they play a slow and calculating game.
They will shower attention and gifts on the young girls and then persuade them to keep their ‘relationship’ a secret. Sadly, this is often the most attention that these vulnerable children/ young teens have ever had from anyone in their lives, so they respond very positively to it and believe these men are their boyfriends, and that they’re in love.
‘This is when the perpetrators begin asking the girls for ‘favours’ – which will be sleeping with other men for money – and they continue to shower them with gifts and attention, and so it continues.’
What should parents look out for?
‘There are a number of tell-tale signs that parents can look out for if their child is being groomed. For example, they may go missing for periods of time or regularly return home late. They could be missing school or not taking part in education.
‘It’s possible that their child may appear with unexplained gifts or new possessions, and they could be suffering from sexually transmitted infections, drug and alcohol misuse, or even displaying inappropriate sexualised behaviour.’
What would you say to any parents reading this who are worried for their children?
‘As a parent it’s really important to openly discuss with your children the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships, so you can keep a relaxed, open dialogue going with them on such topics and use it to highlight potential risks to them.
‘It’s also about being aware of new, unexplained gifts or possessions that they come home with and carefully monitoring any episodes of staying out late or not returning home. Keep an eye on any older people your child may start up friendships with too, especially if they seem to be becoming quite intense.
‘If you are concerned that a child is at risk of sexual exploitation you can contact one of Barnardo’s specialist sexual exploitation projects for advice. Just visit the website below for their contact details:
www.barnardos.org.uk/specialist_sexual_exploitation_projects, but if you think a child is in immediate danger, call 999 or contact your local police.’
How has becoming a parent changed your life?
‘I have one son and becoming a parent has made me realise that every child should have the right to a safe, loving environment where their needs are paramount. The joy of children and having young people around makes you realise that you are not only a teacher but a pupil also.’
If you could change three things for children around the world, what would you change and why?
'The large majority of local council’s children’s services departments in England do not yet recognise child sexual exploitation as a problem in their areas. But it is very real and it is happening to children everywhere, every day. I would like all areas of England to wake up to this and join the fight to prevent this from happening under our noses.
‘Two, education – lots of children don’t go to school, as they are working. I would like all children to have an education and a childhood and not be exploited.'
‘Three, lots of companies have bad practice around the world – for instance, contamination of water by oil. There are situations where children don’t have safe water to drink, families use contaminated water for crops and are living in unsafe environments.
‘I would like to think that all companies and businesses in the world are accountable.’
What do you have in your musical pipeline?
‘I’ve been back in the studio recently to record a couple of Beatles songs which will be on an album called ‘The Ladies Love’.
‘I won’t say too much as I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but me and a few other girls have recorded a selection of Beatles love songs in our own style. It’s a little bit different to what people might expect from me.
‘At the moment it’s still in progress, but we’re working with a great producer and what we’ve heard coming out so far is really exciting.’