This article has been brought to you by Slough Borough Council's Associate Director and Education & Inclusion, Johnny Kyriacou on behalf of Thames Valley Police's Detective Superintendent and Head of PVP. This is for the attention of all professionals working with children and young people.
Thames Valley Police received a letter from the National Police Chiefs’ Council leads for Child Protection and Abuse Investigations (CPAI) and Suicide Prevention. This has been adapted for the purposes of sharing it with professionals working with children and young people.
It was in relation to a recent police-led operation involving the discovery of child online chat groups, where peer-to-peer influence increased suicidal ideation amongst the children involved to the extent that several escalated to suicidal crises and serious self-harm. You may be already aware of this specific incident but if you are not, there have been further details included of the incident, potential suggestions and learning that might be of use in preparing or supporting staff and the development of contingency plans to respond to similar circumstances in future.
Twelve girls, aged between twelve and sixteen years of age and from across the South of England, were involved in the online forums. The group first came to notice after three of the girls, who were reported missing, travelled by train to meet in London, they then purchased and consumed alcohol and acquired a large quantity of paracetamol tablets. They were found in the street, seriously unwell and taken by ambulance for emergency hospital treatment. At this stage one of the girls mentioned they had first met each other online and they had created a pact to die by suicide. It then transpired they were members of a wider closed chat group on Instagram called ‘SuicideSquadGoMissing’.
On this occasion, all the girls who were part of the online communications have been identified and safeguarded, but the operational partnership responses required to identify and protect all those involved required significant co-ordination and support by policing. In this case the young girls initially came together in an internet enabled virtual environment, communicated with each other online and then presented across geographical and multi-disciplinary boundaries.
Regrettably, it is likely that a similar scenario may come to notice in the future. Therefore, in preparedness for such an eventuality we would ask that:
- You share the contents of this letter and the details of this incident with the necessary staff in your organisation
- If the first report of is identified through your organisation, that your staff are fully briefed to ensure the local police are informed immediately the information is known. The use of 999 if the police cannot be raised immediately would be appropriate as there is immediate risk to life with this information
- The police Force where the first report originates will take the lead and to co-ordinate the necessary multi-agency responses required
We are likely to ask for your support in order to identify, support and protect all those who may be involved, as well as support with debriefing those involved. We would also be engaged with fast-time forensic digital examinations which include the examination of technical devices belonging to those concern or that of their families.
The following provides a very brief outline of the nature and scale of the previous operation. This demonstrates the challenges likely to be presented in leading this type of cross-border and multi-agency response to protect and safeguard the vulnerable children involved:
- 12 girls were identified as being involved
- Seven of the 12 girls had self-harmed prior to being identified, in most cases they had taken numerous paracetamol tablets, one had cut her neck
- 13 digital devices were seized by police and subject to fast-track forensic digital examinations, to identify the remaining members of this virtual group
- Children’s Social Care services from seven separate Local Authority areas were involved
- Five Police forces were involved
- Various other acute hospital trusts, mental health trusts and services for example CAMHS were involved
- Other third sector NGOs were involved to provide advice and support, for example, the Samaritans
- The first police force responding, convened, chaired and facilitated multi-agency meetings with all partners on a daily basis. This approach was considered essential to effectively lead and coordinate the necessary engagement and responses by all partners.
We hope this was of use to you to increase awareness of the influence of social media on our young people and how we may jointly respond in the future as effectively as possible. I have asked for our Adults At Risk partners to also be sighted due to the same level of vulnerability and harm all our communities are exposed to.