A senior officer responsible for bringing to justice those who prey on Wiltshire’s most vulnerable has warned about the dangers of children being abused behind closed doors during the coronavirus lockdown.

Det Supt Ben Mant runs the public protection department at Wiltshire Police. His officers and staff investigate everything from domestic abuse to carers defrauding those they look after.

He fears that there could be a fall in the number of abuse reports during the lockdown.

“A lot of child abuse is reported to us through schools and through other professionals that children come into contact with. I am concerned that we won’t see that reporting,” he said.

“The same thing happens frequently, because we see it over the summer holidays and Christmas holidays.

“But this could be an extended period of time when we don’t know yet exactly how long the lockdown provisions are going to apply and how long the schools are going to be closed for.”

Since the lockdown began a month ago, detectives have not put any alleged child abusers before the magistrates, although a number of people charged with domestic violence have been remanded.

That is not, of course, to say that abuse is not going on.

Chief Constable Kier Pritchard told the Adver this week that he had asked his officers to be extra vigilant if they speak to children out and about apparently in the face of the coronavirus regulations – just in case they are fleeing trouble at home.

“People shouldn’t suffer in silence, whether they’re male or female or a child,” he said.

“The advice I’m providing to my officers is I want you to be professionally curious when you’re speaking to people outside their homes.

“If you’ve got a teenager who is being distant with you and you are asking why they are out and what they are doing, asking good questions, be curious: it could be they are escaping from a violent household where there is domestic abuse ongoing.

“We’re just trying to make sure we’ve got our eyes open to every potential consequence.”

One thing the police have got their eyes open to is the potential for children to be abused online.

The National Crime Agency this month warned forces about a terrifying case where a 10-year-old girl had been forced into sending explicit photographs of herself to paedophiles online.

The perverted extortionists told the girl she needed to send the images or else they would post a parcel to her parents laced with coronavirus and infect the terrified child’s family.

Children’s charity the NSPCC have this week warned that the lonelier children are and the more they rely on social media, the more likely they are to fall prey to online predators.

One youngster, quoted by the charity as part of a national campaign, said: “My loneliness was definitely exploited on more than one occasion. Comments could be from anything to an innocent ‘I’m here if you need to chat’ to more manipulative ways such as ‘you know I’m the only one who cares for you, you’ve told me you’re lonely and I’ve always been there haven’t I?’”

Anyone who believes such abuse does not occur in Wiltshire would be wise to think again. Last month, paedophile Benjamin Hollands was jailed for more than six years after he posed as a succession of teen boys to trick Wiltshire girls into sending him pictures of themselves.

Closer to home, Det Supt Mant urged anyone concerned about a child being abused to call police non-emergency line 101.

“If people are worried about their neighbours’ children or children they know of. If they’re worried they’re coming to harm or they’re at risk, we would encourage them to call in. We’re adapting our police methods and our style in order to help the government help all of us comply with the lockdown rules, but we are still here. We’re still an emergency service and we’re still here to help people.”

Call 101 or 999 in an emergency.

NSPCC warns of 'perfect storm'

The NSPCC warned that the coronavirus pandemic has created the perfect storm.

A new survey by the charity suggests that children who are lonely, like attention and rely on social media are more than twice as likely to be groomed online.

More than 2,000 young people, aged between 11 and 17, were surveyed by the NSPCC last year, with four per cent telling researchers they had sent, received or been asked to send sexual messages to an adult online. Among more vulnerable children, including those who said they spent more time on social media, the figure was nine per cent.

Louise, from Wiltshire, was nine when she was first coerced into sending a sexually explicit image of herself to a man. Then, when she was 12, she was sexually assaulted by a young person she met online and exploited by another she thought she was in a relationship with.

She said: “My loneliness was definitely exploited on more than one occasion. Comments could be from anything to an innocent ‘I’m here if you need to chat’ to more manipulative ways such as ‘you know I’m the only one who cares for you, you’ve told me you’re lonely and I’ve always been there haven’t I?’”

NSPCC head of child safety online policy,Andy Burrows said: “It’s particularly worrying during the lockdown as it is clear now that it has never been easier for abusers to exploit lonely children who are spending a lot of time online.” He called on tech firms to do more to keep children safe.

How big a problem is it?

In 2018/19 there were 495 reports of sexual offences committed against children in Wiltshire.

It was a drop compared with 2015/16, when there were more than 550 offences reported.

But it meant that the equivalent of more than one offence a day was being reported to the force.

Child abuse, both physical and sexual, are likely to be under-reported.

However, the number of children on a child protection plan with the council because of concerns they are being abused is comparatively high in Wiltshire.

In 2018, the latest year for which figures are available, the equivalent of 49.3 children per 10,000 on the social services plans – the highest rate in the region.

That year, 99 children had to be taken into care because of suspicions they were being abused or neglected.

Abuse can take many forms. Recent cases before the Swindon courts have ranged from a dad slapping his baby with a wooden spoon to a paedophile who posed as a succession of teen boys on Snapchat to trick and coerce teenage girls into sending him explicit images.

Last year, the crown court on Islington Street was the scene of the jailing of Britain’s youngest female paedophile.

Sophie Elms was just 18. She had been babysitting toddlers when she filmed herself abusing them and sent the images to known sex offenders. Passing sentence on the 18-year-old Judge Jason Taylor QC told her: “Only time will tell what damage you have inflicted.”