Stoke & Staffordshire

Facebook party arranged by sex abuse gang in Stoke-on-Trent, police chief says

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Image caption The party was organised on Facebook, Staffordshire Police said

A party arranged on Facebook by a gang planning to sexually exploit children was stopped by police, Staffordshire's chief constable has claimed.

Jane Sawyers said officers descended on the party in Stoke-on-Trent and found up to 40 girls aged 14 to 15.

She revealed the raid in a response to criticism of her force over its record for protecting vulnerable victims.

But police later said there was no intelligence to suggest child sexual exploitation would occur at the party.

Staffordshire Police would only describe the inquiry into the party, which is said to have been held in the Bucknall area of the city earlier this month, as an "ongoing investigation".

Updates on this story and more stories from Stoke

Speaking about the gathering, Ms Sawyers said: "The purpose of arranging the party was so that some children could be exploited."

'No offences'

Later Supt Wayne Jones, also from Staffordshire Police, said there was no suggestion the party was planned for child sexual exploitation, but that officers intervened to ensure the safety of around 40 schoolgirls aged 14 and 15 who were planning on attending.

He said: "This is one small strand of a bigger piece of prevention work. We did stop a number of children, we took them home or contacted their parents.

"There was no intelligence to suggest this was a party where childhood sexual exploitation was going to take place, and there were no offences committed so no arrests."

He added there was no "sinister undertone" to the party - and the force's intervention and the operation, called Habitat, was about making sure parents were aware of where their children were and what they were doing when they attended parties arranged via social media sites.

The investigation looked at how social media was being used to advertise house parties across the city, after police were made aware of reports, through disclosures by children to teachers, care workers and occasionally parents, that some sexual activity had taken place at some parties, the force said.

Officers managed to disrupt or stop some gatherings from taking place, a police spokesman said.

The majority of those who went to the party earlier this month did not enter the house, the spokesman added.

The raid involved the public protection investigation team, child exploitation team, integrated offender management and social services, said Ms Sawyers.

She said the 40 girls were not all intended victims of sexual exploitation, and work is continuing to support the girls and their families.

'Serious weaknesses'

The chief constable was responding to a report that rated the force "inadequate" at protecting vulnerable victims.

The HMIC inspection into police effectiveness said the force had "made an encouraging start" in preparing to tackle child sexual exploitation, but found a "mixed picture" of performance overall.

HMIC, which inspected the force between June and August last year, identified "serious weaknesses" in the services Staffordshire Police provides to protect and support victims, particularly domestic abuse victims.

Urgent improvement was needed in several areas, inspectors said.

However, officers recognised the risks posed to children and young people from sexual exploitation and the senior leadership within the force had demonstrated "a commitment to tackling the problem", the report found.

Ms Sawyer said: "We are constantly adapting and improving how we investigate new types of crime and HMIC recognises the active steps we are taking."

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