by Social Work Outlaw
In the care ‘system’ there are a number of young people at great risk of sexual grooming while being a looked after child. I have worked with a young person in such a situation.
There has been a lot of recent media attention on this area, most of it negative in regards to social care’s methods in dealing with child sexual exploitation. From my experiences of trying to protect and help a teenage girl in the care system, I would say that these media reports are justified.
I became involved with my young person, who I will call Paula, after being passed her case from a colleague. Paula was living in a residential unit after several failed foster placements and was making links with young people and adults.
‘A complex and difficult history’
Several of these people were known to the department. Many were previously looked after children themselves. There were also significant concerns around their connections and there was evidence that Paula was being given money, presents and alcohol and drugs.
Paula had a complex and difficult family history. Her background was one of severe emotional abuse and the loss of her mother at a very young age. There were also concerns regarding her relationship with a step parent, which was perceived as having a negative influence on Paula.
Perhaps understandably then, Paula was looking to build relationships with people who would show her some form of acceptance and love.
Initially, she was looked after by family members but this had failed due to her behaviour becoming too challenging. Self-harming and generally disruptive, Paula’s emotional issues were alienating all of the people who were attempting to reach out to her. Eventually she came into local authority care.
‘The placement was going very wrong’
When I met her, Paula was in a residential care placement that was going very wrong. There were a number of worrying developments. She was regularly absconding from the unit and going to a housing development where she’d meet up with young adults. Some of them were supplying her with alcohol and drugs.
Paula disclosed to one health professional, although never her key worker at the unit or myself or previous social workers, that she’d had sex on a number of occasions while absconding and visiting these individuals.
This was never proved but contraceptive advice was given. Paula would not consent to a full medical while she was working with me, so the reality of her sexual exploitation could never be truly attained. However, based on professional opinions from those working with her, it was worryingly likely that she was having sex with a number of men.
Things came to a head when Paula was abducted by an adult in their thirties who was known to the department and taken to another city. There were elements from Paula’s story indicating possible grooming behaviour by the individuals who abducted her and Paula’s welfare was a significant concern.
‘Quick and immediate action was needed’
It was apparent that quick and immediate action was needed to protect Paula from harm, given that the risks seemed to be escalating. In order to move her to a different placement, agreement had to be attained at a panel. I had to state the reason for the move, the benefits of this and to be clear about the possible outcome of not doing anything, or in other words, risk assessment.
The panel was duly arranged and I was asked to overview the whole situation, focussing on all current and apparent risks significant to Paula, including risk of sexual harm, grooming and drug and alcohol use were included to highlight the extent of possible harm. This was coupled with the fact Paula appeared to be at risk from sexual grooming and exploitation.
Doing this in various documents enabled me to rationalise and summarise the situation in order to obtain the services needed to effect change for Paula. Having to go to a panel that included the director of children’s services and making what can only be called a business case for safeguarding a vulnerable young person brought all of these difficult issues to light.
Given Paula’s history, I did not anticipate having to return to various panels to get ‘approval’ to safeguard her; I counted three. It was suggested that I tried to make the current placement ‘work’ by having various meetings with staff and other professionals, and attend risk assessment panels, all the while knowing that a move to another placement away from the area was the only practical proposal to safeguard Paula.
Alongside dealing with the casework itself, what became difficult and challenging was the constant need to prove my judgement, the need to keep reasoning with the service managers and heads of service to put Paula in a place of safety. How many times do you have to state the obvious? I assumed as a social worker of some years’ experience, my assessment would be accepted as a thorough overview of the situation.
This was an immensely challenging piece of work, with difficult decisions to be made. It taught me the many conflicting issues that arise when working with a young person in a crisis situation and all the factors that need to be considered.
It seems that cash plays a big part in decision making in such situations and this is only going to become more of an issue as local authority budgets are cut further over the next few years. But of course ethically we should never prioritise money over a young girl like Paula’s wellbeing.
Social Work Outlaw is a member of the British Association of Social Workers