Child sexual exploitation in the spotlight

It may be left to a television soap to move sexual grooming and exploitation of children further up the social care agenda. Camilla Pemberton reports on the risk of ignoring it

Millions of BBC viewers will next month watch in horror as a teenage character on EastEnders is groomed for sex by a predatory older man. The storyline is bound to shock but it has been devised to raise awareness of child sexual exploitation in the UK after some recent high-profile cases.

The issue is already prominent. In November, nine men were convicted of grooming and abusing 25 under-age girls in Derby, two of whom were in care, before nine arrests for the alleged grooming of teenage girls in Rochdale this month.

The sexual exploitation of under-age girls and boys is happening in towns and cities all over the UK, according to Sheila Taylor, chief executive of the charity Safe and Sound Derby.

She said exploitation could range from seemingly “consensual” sexual relationships and exchanges of sex for accommodation or gifts to serious, organised crime.

This month, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (Ceop) Centre launched an in-depth analysis of the issue, which will report in six months. Barnardo’s also launched a campaign and report publicising the issue. It revealed grooming is becoming more sophisticated and widespread and its victims are often younger.

Although the attention is welcome, some feel it is overdue. “We’ve been talking and writing about sexual exploitation for years,” says Tink Palmer, a child protection expert and author of a 2001 study on the issue. “It is sexual abuse but, because it presents differently and is harder to detect, it’s never been properly understood or seen as a priority by local and central government.”

Donald Findlater, director of research and development at the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, adds: “We know from our work that it’s not always recognised as a child protection issue. That is scandalous.”

There are no official figures on how many children are affected – Taylor estimates “thousands” – and it is this dearth of evidence that keeps the crime underground. Scant research also makes it difficult to corroborate claims, raised after the Derby case, of a growing problem concerning British-Pakistani gangs who target under-age white girls. Most experts, however, told Community Care their experiences do not support this.

The Barnardo’s report highlighted the message that sexual exploitation occurs in all ethnic communities. In every case it is child abuse and should be treated as such, it stated, even if the child is an angry teenager incapable of eliciting much public sympathy.

Sexual exploitation “seems to be downgraded in importance by society, and statutory social work,” says Wendy Shepherd, manager of Barnardo’s Secos project. Taylor agrees: “I want to know why these children are being ignored by some councils, even when there is a clear risk.”

Community Care put this to several social workers from different councils. Their responses reveal a worrying, if unsurprising, trend. One manager in a child protection team said: “If teams are stretched, a difficult, absconding teenager who doesn’t engage may not seem a top priority. Assessing whether sexual exploitation has taken place takes money and time – we don’t have much of either.” But she added: “No one wants to turn a blind eye. Central government needs to prioritise this by investing in the expansion of specialist projects so all areas are well-served.”

Research last year by the National Working Group for sexually exploited children and young people revealed there are just 29 sexual exploitation co-ordinators – working with agencies for a local response – in the country, representing fewer than a quarter of local safeguarding children boards. This is despite guidance in the 2006 document, Working Together to Safeguard Children, that made it clear this was the only way to tackle sexual exploitation effectively.

It remains to be seen whether the current high profile of sexual exploitation will change this. Barnardo’s and the NWG are trying to take advantage by calling for a minister to formulate a national action plan and ensure its implementation.

Given the complexities of the cases involved, though, social workers are always likely to find dealing with sexual exploitation challenging.

Manipulated, raped, discarded

For Sasha, 16, EastEnders‘ portrayal of a vulnerable girl who mistakes grooming and manipulation for flattery and attention will seem horribly familiar.

After meeting a group of men in her local park three years ago – “they seemed cool; they had cars and bought us things” – one coerced her into sex before three began to rape her regularly. Confused, because “one said he loved me”, and frightened – “they said they’d petrol bomb my house” – she became angry, violent and ill.

Eighteen months later, the men moved on to another victim. Sasha was relieved, but also distressed, having grown used to the attention.

She was identified as being at serious risk of further sexual exploitation by a youth worker who prevented her getting into a stranger’s car. He made a referral to children’s services so she could access regular treatment for her mental health needs and, if necessary, become looked after. He was told her case did not meet statutory thresholds.

Good practice

Engage! Social workers have joined police, sexual health workers, NHS workers and the third sector to fight sexual exploitation in Blackburn with Darwen. Call: 01254 267 790

Awaken, Blackpool Local authority social workers work with Lancashire police force in a co-located team to tackle sexual exploitation. They have achieved a 96.8% conviction rate. More information: 01253 607063

Safe and Sound Derby A specialist charity committed to outreach work with sexually exploited children. It was praised in the Derby serious case review for helping to identify and support victims, and helping police to achieve convictions:

Barnardo’s has 22 specialist projects nationwide, including the highly regarded Secos (Sexual Exploitation of Children On the Streets) project in Stockton and Middlesborough. For a list of services:

Just Whistle runs training and seminars on sexual exploitation

Read plans for action on sexual exploitation by experts on the frontline

Related article

Vital facility for vulnerable girls under threat

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Community Care Inform subscribers can access an expert-written guide on safeguarding children and young people from sexual exploitation written by Dr Andrew Durham, independent child care consultant and consultant to the Sexualised Inappropriate Behaviours Service at Warwickshire Council. Click here for more information or contact Kim Poupart.

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