Five men have been jailed after exploiting two vulnerable children in Stoke-on-Trent, marking a victory in the fight against child criminal exploitation.
The individuals were convicted earlier this year and were handed their sentences at Stoke-on-Trent Court on 12th July.
The sentencing follows an extensive police investigation initiated in May 2019 due to concerns raised about child exploitation.
The probe, conducted over six months by a dedicated team in conjunction with several multi-agency partners, identified two child victims and several offenders by February 2020.
The principal perpetrators, identified as Umar Rafi, Usman Rafi, Muazzam Naseer, Haroon Hussain, and Mohammed Hassnain Shabir, were arrested during a large-scale enforcement operation across Stoke-on-Trent in February and March 2020.
Investigators found that the group of men coerced and exploited the children between March 2019 and February 2020.
Consequently, the young victims were repeatedly arrested for drug offences, ultimately revealing the true nature of their circumstances.
Detective Constable Stuart Pearson praised the victims for their cooperation during the investigation, stating that their assistance greatly contributed to the successful prosecution of the offenders.
He also commended the Crown Prosecution Service’s West Midlands Complex Crime Team for their unwavering support.
Detective Inspector Stephen Ward further highlighted the importance of a partnership approach in achieving justice, encouraging other victims of similar abuse to step forward with the assurance that their voices would be heard.
Staffordshire County Council’s Cabinet member for Children and Young People, Councillor Mark Sutton, expressed satisfaction at the outcome of the investigation and praised the inter-agency collaboration.
Stoke-on-Trent City Council cabinet member for children’s services, Councillor Lynn Watkins, added that this successful prosecution sends a strong message that such calculated and insidious crimes would not be tolerated.
The men received the following sentences:
Umar Rafi, 31, was sentenced to 16 years imprisonment. He was found guilty of several offences, including forced labour, arranging travel for exploitation, interfering with justice, and conspiracy to supply Class A controlled drugs.
Usman Rafi, 29, Muazzam Naseer, 26, and Haroon Hussain, 30, all from Stoke-on-Trent, were each sentenced to 15 years imprisonment after pleading guilty to similar charges as Umar Rafi.
Mohammed Hassnain Shabir, 24, was sentenced to four years and six months after being found guilty of robbery.
The investigation also led to the arrest of two more individuals.
Paul Malcolm Harnett, 46, was sentenced to three years and nine months imprisonment in February 2023 for permitting premises to be used to supply drugs.
He was later released due to time already served.
Lee Comley, 49, received a suspended sentence of 12 months for being involved in the supply of Class A controlled drugs.
This case signifies a significant stride in tackling child exploitation and underscores the dedication of law enforcement and local authorities in safeguarding the vulnerable.
It also serves as a stern warning to perpetrators that their crimes will not go unpunished.
In the wake of this case, looking at the broader context of child exploitation in England and Wales is crucial.
According to the National Police Chiefs’ Council, there were 17,486 cases of child sexual exploitation recorded by police in the year ending March 2022.
Disturbingly, this represents an increase of 10% from the previous year.
Most victims of child sexual exploitation were girls, comprising 80% of cases, with the average age of the victim being 14 years old.
The primary form of exploitation was grooming, accounting for 58% of cases, followed by sexual assault (27%) and trafficking (15%).
The increase in such crimes underscores the importance of awareness and early intervention in tackling child sexual exploitation.
There are several potential warning signs that a child may be a victim:
Changes in Behavior: Victims may display signs of withdrawal, depression, or anxiety or engage in risky behaviours such as running away from home.
Physical Appearance: Children may undergo changes in how they dress or their weight, potentially indicating a cause for concern.
Social Relationships: Increased time spent with older individuals or unfamiliar people and withdrawal from friends and family may be a red flag.
School Performance: Deteriorating grades or loss of interest in schoolwork could signify a child dealing with issues outside of school.
It’s paramount that any suspicions of child sexual exploitation are reported to the police immediately.
Support is also available through the NSPCC helpline at 0808 800 5000.
This case in Stoke-on-Trent serves as a stark reminder of the grim reality many children face and the duty of society to protect its most vulnerable members.
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