Abbie* is retelling the story of her first child sexual exploitation case: a 14-year-old girl, with an extensive history of involvement with children’s services, had stopped engaging with her family and social workers and started a relationship with a man in his 20s.
The man was emotionally and physically abusive, pursuing a sexual relationship with the girl and refusing to use contraception. As a result, the teenager would become pregnant and he would insist she had the pregnancy terminated. This happened three times.
It was while removing the girl from the man’s house that Abbie learned just how different this was from other sexual abuse cases.
“He was really dismissive of her,” she recalls. “Yet she was absolutely, in her mind, attached to him. She was in love with him, he was her boyfriend, he meant everything. This disparity between the perpetrator’s feelings and her feelings really struck me, and how unequal that relationship was and how exploitative he was being.”
Abbie has worked in social care since 2005 and has been a child protection social worker since 2009. Currently, she works in a London authority as a specialist social worker responding to cases of child sexual exploitation.
Social workers can learn how to build a strong evidence base for child sexual exploitation, as well as understand the different models of exploitation and grooming, at Community Care Live.
As we talk, she describes the emotional toll these cases take: the heartbreak when a developing relationship with a young person experiences a set-back; how, in the face of rising demand, it’s only going to get tougher to support them and her frustration at the systems making cases more difficult.
Children in need, child protection, assessment and intervention processes are all set up around inter-familial situations, she says, whereas in cases of sexual exploitation, the significant harm is happening externally.
“Child protection systems aren’t set up for sexual exploitation,” she explains. “Young people don’t get the same response as more typical or traditional cases of abuse.
“I will often hear social workers and managers say: ‘There is no point putting this young person on a child in need plan, [or] a child protection plan. What’s it going to do? The family isn’t the problem,’” she says.
As a result, children who have suffered sexual exploitation are rarely afforded the same response as other cases of sexual abuse. Sadly, she says: “It sometimes feels like the threshold for child sexual exploitation is 10 times higher.”
The system for sexual exploitation cases feels very separate from child protection processes, Abbie admits. They are also tied to police and judicial responses, making this feel like a very time consuming, completely different branch of child protection.
She explains: “Our response is 100% affected by lack of experience, lack of understanding, lack of capacity. Child sexual exploitation cases can take a huge amount of time – because we’ve made this system that we work with separate – and not all social workers have the capacity to do what is asked of them.”
Abbie feels children’s services are “covering things up with quick fixes” and wants to see teenage victims approached in the way a five-year-old suffering inter-familial abuse would be. “We’re focusing on the incident of exploitation, rather than the child.”
Perversely rising thresholds
She would also like to see a less punitive response to sexual exploitation, with less reliance on placing victims in secure units, and the abuse more successfully integrated into the threshold of significant harm.
Alongside the frustrations of the system, there is also the issue of increasing demand; Community Care’s investigation has today revealed that referrals for child sexual exploitation rose by nearly a third last year.
Why are referrals rising so quickly? Abbie believes it is due to growing awareness of the abuse. However, she warns that, perversely, the more referrals children’s services receive, the higher thresholds will become.
As a result, there is a growing dependency on voluntary agencies. “One of the key frustrations is that social workers want to be the one to do the direct work. They want to be building the relationships, but they can’t and they don’t,” she admits.
“They end up having to make referrals to voluntary services to do that work and then it’s another professional in that child’s life, and more coordination for the social worker to do.”
Frustration appears to be the overriding feeling for Abbie: frustration with the systems social workers operate in and frustration at having to pass on key work to other agencies.
Besides frustration, what emotional toll do these cases take? “Naturally, you reflect on your own adolescence and what you went through, and you remember how tough it is to be a teenager. “So, you put yourself and your knowledge of how difficult it was into their situation. And you just think: ‘It’s 10 times worse.’”
*Name has been changed