nspccThe NSPCC has called for the government not just to focus on child protection in moments of crisis after suggesting that we have reached a "watershed moment in the fight to end child abuse".

Speaking at the NSPCC's flagship 'How safe are our children?' Conference [17 June], chief executive Peter Wanless said: "In the previous 12 months, while horrified by the stories of abuse that have come to light, I've been heartened by the willingness shown to address these issues, to find support for those that have suffered abuse, and to make changes. In some cases very difficult changes to ensure that it is easier to protect children.

"But I believe now is a watershed moment and we have to capitalise on it. Confidence to speak up and speak out about abuse must be matched by actions to support those at risk or already suffering the consequences. We have heard fantastic rhetoric over the last year from politicians of all parties, but when it came to the moment to stand on a platform at a hustings or in the much vaunted televised debates and say, 'vote for me because I will tackle this issue and this really matters' – the subject of child abuse was largely absent."

The event saw the launch of the annual How Safe? report, which revealed that 570,800 children were referred to social services in England in 2013/14, the highest number since the date was first collected in 2010. Wanless suggested that a shift in paradigm was needed, in particular in terms of considering online abuse.

"When we hear horrific stories about children being groomed online and heading for the Turkish and Syrian borders to join ISIS, we need to acknowledge that the risks of child online grooming have existed for many years," he said. Yes, we [the NSPCC] have focused on sexual grooming rather than for the purposes of Jihad but the mechanisms are the same. This is not just about services but it is about a culture – well beyond children's services - that looks out for young people at risk.

"This report shows that grooming remains a real challenge and we need to help professionals – such as the social workers, teachers, or police officers in this room – to identify and protect victims and ensure some of the most vulnerable young people in the country get the help they desperately need, earlier than many currently realise they need it."

With the report also showing that the number of children in the child protection system has increased 80% and child sexual abuse costs the taxpayer an estimated £3bn a year in costs to the health service, social care and the criminal justice system, Wanless suggested there is "insufficient support for children who suffer abuse or neglect to rebuild their lives".

He went on to challenge the newly elected government to ensure that in 2020 "there isn't a group of children, or indeed adults, living in the shadows" with a system in place whereby everyone who is suffering abuse or has suffered abuse can get the help they need to recover.

He added: "By the time of the next General Election, I want all our children to have resilience and understanding of abuse that will help them recognise and act before it happens and our institutions to have the safety of children as a core component of their corporate culture.

"A new government does not mean we need to hit the reset button, but it does provide us with the opportunity to promote innovative solutions, drive forward change with renewed vigour, and compel politicians to do everything they can to keep children safe; to prevent abuse before it happens."

Find out more: Reports of child abuse & neglect rapidly on rise