Sexual predators and drug gangs have used lockdown to target isolated teens, Ashington official says
The lockdown has left Northumberland’s youth at greater risk than ever of being exploited by dangerous criminals.
And more funding and support is needed for organizations that help keep teens on a safer path.
That’s the perspective of Rob Cox, CEO of YMCA Northumberland, whose Ashington-based youth center offers recreation, counseling and support to more than 400 local teens.
Go here for more Northumberland news and updates live from Northumberland
Reopening in the wake of the pandemic, Rob and his team face increasing pressure as they work to help teens recover from the problems caused by the lockdown – from increasing mental health issues to exposure to criminal activity.
“The main impact is the fact that they have been more likely to be exploited by things like County Lines [drug operations],” he said.
“The criminalization of young people and their exploitation when they have had a period of lack of access to support – not just from the YMCA but from schools, other groups. We have tried to fight this through awareness raising, but with the lockdown, a chasm has grown between young people and the services that support them. “
With many teens cut off from the services they usually turned to for help, criminals took advantage of the lockdown to contact them both online and in person, he said.
Apps like Snapchat have been used to expose people to drugs, while sexual predators have started targeting young people spending more time online during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, YMCA workers visiting local parks as part of their outreach work also saw how vulnerable some young people were to in-person exploitation as they sought to get out of the house during the lockdown, but nowhere else had but public places to go. The scale of the problem came as a shock even to those experienced in the field.
“It was a real surprise, even to us, that young people were being exploited to the extent that they were,” said Rob.
“It feels like we’ve never seen it to this degree before and we’re talking to other organizations that say the same thing. It’s important that we make sure our doors are open and that there are a place to go for young people. “
With the much-criticized reduction in universal credit by the government currently making headlines, poverty remains one of the main problems putting children at risk – some being exploited by criminals in exchange for money to buy food.
Rob said: “We have seen real situations with young people where they have done something as a favor, whether it is criminal activity or sexual activity, because they can get food out of it. people who see it almost as usual. “
The center has now been able to reopen and despite some number limits, Rob and his team are once again able to provide Ashington’s teens with safer places and non-judgmental support to help them escape dangerous situations. While advice on education and vocational training is offered, the main aim is to give ‘young people a space to be young’ with youth workers who understand the issues they face.
“We are seeing massive changes in the young people we work with,” he said.
“For example, we have a group of young girls that we work with who, during the lockdown, were involved in very risky situations and we worked on that and we are seeing a real change in the people they hang out with. . ”
However, it was not only those at risk of criminal exploitation who benefited from the support offered by the Ashington center. There is help for young people who are struggling with mental health issues or are simply struggling with boredom.
A teenage girl from Ashington who has visited the YMCA Northumberland regularly in recent years is 15-year-old Neve Stuart, whose older sister recommends that she visit the center because she was bored in her free time.
Three years later, Neve, who dreams of becoming a medical examiner, now hopes to volunteer for the YMCA, helping young people organize sessions and events at the site that meant so much to her.
She said: “The Center has always provided me with a safe place to go and meet friends, rather than doing nothing but walking around the area. He had fun social activities and the youth workers became more like friends, so I was able to discuss any issues I had with them.
“It’s great for mental health because you can go out and mingle with other people of the same age who fully understand what you’re going through as a teenager. It really helps a lot. You get the impression that everything about young people has now become a stigma. We may be thought of as troublemakers and attention seekers, but the truth is, we are like everyone else trying to learn and navigate through a time in their life that can be complicated, confusing, or messy at times.
“Some of us sometimes live with poor mental health and that extra stigma doesn’t help. Every youth should have access to facilitators and youth sessions because it really helps, so the work Rob and the team do at the YMCA is amazing. I would definitely recommend it to others my age.
The Ashington YMCA recently received a huge boost in the form of a £ 10,000 donation from the Bernicia Foundation, but Rob believes more government funding is needed for local youth support organizations like his. as the pressures on them escalate – leaving some young people at risk of falling through a “dangerous chasm” in the support available.
He said: “These issues are happening now, not in two or three months, and as a local meeting place our youth workers can make a huge difference in the lives of young people.
“Whether it’s as a positive and confidential person to talk to, to help them be part of non-judgmental friendship groups or to keep them away from high-risk activities that have become a real danger to the region, we must have access to funds to do so. “
For the latest Northumberland news delivered straight to your inbox every day, go here to sign up for our free newsletter