Sexual exploitation inquiry must be ‘wake-up call’ for services

The true extent of sexual exploitation in England still remains under the radar, finds the Office of the Children's Commissioner as it publishes the first of two reports following its two-year inquiry into the abuse

Homeless young people are more at risk of sexual exploitation; Pic: Rex Features

Almost 2,500 children fell victim to sexual exploitation in the 14 months between August 2010 and October 2011, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner has found.

As part of its government-commissioned inquiry into the extent and nature of sexual exploitation in England, the OCC also found 16,500 children displayed three or more of the warning signs (see below) of being at risk of sexual exploitation in the same period.

‘Real figures certain to be higher’

Deputy Children’s Commissioner Sue Berelowitz, who is conducting the investigation, said the real number of victims is certain to be even higher as the evidence indicated many more victims remain under the radar of agencies and specialist groups.

“These children have been abducted, trafficked, beaten and threatened after being drawn into a web of sexual violence, sometimes by promises of love and sometimes simply because they know there is no alternative,” Berelowitz said.

“This abuse and violence can be relentless and take place anyhere- as they go home from school, as they walk to the shops, in their local park.”

‘Wake-up call for children’s services’

Children’s Commissioner Maggie Atkinson said the report should be a “wake-up call”. She said everyone working in children’s services should be aware of the warning signs, identified by the report, that a child is at risk of sexual exploitation.

The report concluded that the majority of sexually-exploited children were living at home when their abuse began, but found 15% of the identified victims had experienced abuse while in care and 35% of those at risk of sexual exploitation were in care.

Of the 2,409 victims, 155 were also identified as perpetrators of child sexual exploitation, leading to confusion among agencies about how to deal with them. This was particularly the case among young teenage boys who were often used as the ‘bait’ to draw young girls into sexual exploitation.

The crossover between victim and perpetrator was also a feature among gangs, which were specifically investigated by Bedfordshire University as part of the inquiry.

Professor Jenny Pearce said researchers had been shocked at the extreme levels of sexual violence assumed by children to be an inevitable part of life in areas dominated by gangs. They found sex was being used to intimidate and humiliate victims.

Sexual exploitation ‘not a racial issue’, finds report

The report also put to rest claims that sexual exploitation is a racial issue, finding that this model of child abuse occurs across all ethnic groups.

“What the evidence illustrates is that this issue is widespread and there is more than one type of perpetrator, model and approach to child sexual exploitation by gangs and groups,” the report stated.

Debbie Jones, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said it was a stark reminder that too many children involved in criminal behaviour had suffered “almost unimaginably horrific experiences that were shaping the way they behaved”.

“These young people need therapy, not punishment and to know that they will be treated as victims first and foremost, rather than as criminals,” she added.

Andy McCullough, UK head of policy and public affairs at the charity Railway Children, said: “Local efforts to assess risk are inconsistent, and current intelligence gathering and sharing are unreliable and patchy. As well as creating a postcode lottery of services for vulnerable children, failure to grasp the true scale of the problem makes coming up with solutions that could work almost impossible.”

He said it was made worse by the steady decline of one-to-one support for children at risk due to cost cutting measures.

The report identified typical vulnerabilities in children prior to abuse. They include:

• Living in a chaotic or dysfunctional household (including parental substance use, domestic violence, parental mental health issues, parental criminality)
• History of abuse (including familial child sexual abuse, risk of forced marriage, risk of ‘honour’-based violence, physical and emotional abuse and neglect)
• Gang association, either through relatives, peers or intimate relationships (in cases of gang-associated CSE only)
• Unsure about their sexual orientation or unable to disclose sexual orientation to family
• Friends with young people who are sexually exploited
• Homeless or living in a gang neighbourhood
• Lacking friends from the same age group; low self-esteem or confidence
• Living in residential care, a hostel, bed and breakfast accommodation or a foyer
• Attending school with young people who are sexually exploited
• Learning disabilities; Young carers; Recently bereaved

It also identified signs and behaviours seen in children already being sexually exploited. They include:

• Missing from home or care; Absent from school; Estranged from their family
• Drug or alcohol misuse; Involvement in offending
• Repeat sexually-transmitted infections, pregnancy and terminations
• Change in physical appearance; Physical injuries
• Evidence of sexual bullying and/or vulnerability through internet and/or social media
• Receipt of gifts from unknown sources
• Recruiting others into exploitative situations
• Poor mental health; Self-harm; Thoughts of or attempts at suicide

Today’s report is the first of two from the inquiry. The second will focus on the best strategies and methods of tackling sexual exploitation and is due in Autumn 2013.

Related articles

Social work guide: Safeguarding children and young people from sexual exploitation: Identification; response and prevention

Social work tool: Can you spot a child at risk of sexual exploitation?

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