A programme to train up to 15,000 frontline professionals across the UK and address the dearth of expertise in supporting child victims of online sexual abuse has been launched.

Teachers, social workers, police officers, health workers and those working in children’s charities and the criminal justice system are being encouraged to take up the training, which follows a national survey highlighting the lack of confidence and knowledge among professionals working in the field.

The Click: Path to Protection programme, devised by the North Yorkshire-based charity Marie Collins Foundation (MCF), was launched in London with ministerial backing and the support of BT.

Sarah Newton, Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability, said: “This is a very important offer from Marie Collins Foundation for frontline professionals working with children to better understand their needs. This training programme is going to play a really important role.”

Tink Palmer, chief executive of MCF and a leading authority on the harm caused to child victims of online sexual abuse, said: “The purpose is to ensure that the professional response is one that places the needs of abused children and their families at the centre of any investigation or intervention.

“The aim is to empower safeguarding professionals by equipping them with the skills and knowledge required to respond adequately to the needs of children, so they can go on to lead safe and fulfilling lives.”

Chaired by Sir Richard Tilt, former Director General of the Prison Service and Chair of the Internet Watch Foundation, the launch was attended by around 60 representatives of Offices of Police and Crime Commissioners, Local Safeguarding Children Boards, NCA CEOP, police forces, criminal justice, charities, NGOs, academia and the Home Office, some of which immediately signed up for the training.

They also heard from the father of a victim who was groomed after coming out as gay on Facebook at the age of 13.

He said: “Our problems were compounded by too many individuals who were responsible for safeguarding who were not properly trained and who failed to operate within a culture that cared.”

Click: Path to Protection was devised following this and similar cases and the results of research MCF commissioned from the University of Suffolk.

A survey carried out by Professor Emma Bond in 2013 of nearly 700 professionals working in health, education and children and young people’s services confirmed that more than 95 per cent would value training.

Only a quarter of those working in health services said they felt confident in assessing online risk and, in children and young people’s services, only 30 per cent said they had ever received training in assessing online risk.

Prof Bond said: “We have been very proud to work with MCF in doing the initial research to evidence the need for training and also evaluating the pilot and the importance that had in improving the professionals’ understanding and how they should respond to children who have been abused online.”

Victoria Green, director of strategy and development at MCF, outlined the training programme, which has begun to be rolled out across the UK, with the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Bedfordshire being the first OPCC to take a strategic approach to implement the programme over the next three years.

Victoria said: “We are all working in a new context now and, therefore, the skills we need as professionals are different with a different focus and a different way of investigating that isn’t dependent upon the child for evidence.

“We cannot assess, understand and protect the child unless we are doing it in the context of the digital world. The internet has allowed perpetrators access to children in a way that didn’t exist before. Yet, when it comes to the internet, we seem to make children responsible for what’s happening to them in a way that we don’t apply anywhere else.

“The internet has created a whole new group of vulnerable young people who we don’t recognise as traditionally vulnerable. They are children who don’t recognise they are being harmed, who don’t want to tell you and don’t want your help, with parents who only discover their child is being harmed when professionals come knocking on their door.”

Organisations interested in the training can contact MCF via www.mariecollinsfoundation.org.uk