As the coronavirus lockdown creates “the perfect storm” for abusers, a Stevenage mum dedicated to protecting children from sexual predators after her own children were targeted is highlighting the warning signs.

Marilyn Hawes, founder of Freedom from Abuse, has been teaching parents and carers how to protect their children from sexual abuse since her three sons were sexually groomed and assaulted by their headteacher, who was also a family friend.

She said: “In this lockdown, staying at home is far from safe for many children.

“Peer-on-peer abuse now makes up 30 per cent of all reported child sexual abuse. If your child is seeking their own space, not wanting siblings in their room, accept it but ask why? Overly sexualised behaviours are part of peer-on-peer abuse. We all know about child’s play - show me yours and I will show you mine - but be sure where the line in the sand is.

“Sixty per cent of child sexual abuse occurs within the family. Please don’t ignore the fact there are many female paedophiles.

“If behaviour doesn’t feel right, stop and write down what you sensed or saw. Abusers groom and begin abusing in plain sight. Trust your instinct.

“Warning signs can include seeking to be alone with a child, having a favourite, lap-sitting, exaggerated romping games, wanting to take photos and videos of a child, bringing gifts, insisting on a kiss, and a child developing a strong dislike for someone.”

Marilyn is also acutely aware of the prevalence of online abuse. She said: “The internet was never created for youngsters as a platform for communication, which is why it isn’t safe.

“Many abusers connect on live streaming, as they can’t be tracked. Take devices out of bedrooms and ensure webcams are covered. Abusers use voice distorters and incredible disguises.”

Andy Burrows at the NSPCC added: “The lockdown has brewed a perfect storm for offenders to abuse children.

“Social media and gaming sites are proving to be a lifeline for parents and their children as they adapt to being at home, but there are heightened risks.

“It is more important than ever for parents to have regular conversations with their children about what they’re doing online.”

If you have concerns, you can call the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000.