It can’t happen here

Whenever the sexual exploitation of children is mentioned, there
is an automatic belief that it doesn’t happen here. New research
shows that it does, but practical advice on how to tackle it is
thin on the ground. Lynn Eaton investigates

As the problem of sexual exploitation grows, children are left
to find their own way Too little is known about the sexual
exploitation of children, from pornography and prostitution right
through to physical trafficking of them across international
borders. Recent research has gone some way to highlight the
problem, but less confidence is displayed when it comes to offering
practical advice.

Splintered Lives, a report published by the five leading child
care charities, is a case in point.¬ It highlights some of the
dilemmas facing workers and asserts that child exploitation is not
just a problem in Thailand. But again, practical solutions are few
and far between as the area is extremely complex.

Of 78 children who talked to ChildLine over a six-month period,
between June and December 1993, 32 discussed sexual abuse linked to
being shown pornographic magazines or videos, or taking part in
abusive videos. But, according to the report, hard evidence of
sexual exploitation of children is still rare.

Most cases tend to be handled by the police and therefore don’t
show up on the Department of Health’s annual child protection
figures. ‘I do wonder whether social workers find this something
difficult to intervene in,’ said Valerie Howarth, director of
ChildLine. ‘If you look at the case conference system it falls into
place for inter-familial abuse. But if it is abuse by a neighbour
or in a school, it is not a natural step to take child care

Anne Bannister, team manager of the NSPCC’s child sexual abuse
consultancy in Manchester, said that it isn’t a new phenomenon.
‘What is new is the extent of the problem. So many people have
video cameras available and all the equipment is networked.’

So what can hard-pressed child protection workers do? ‘A lot
depends on who you work for,’ Bannister said, and acknowledged the
resource constraints that socialworkers face.

‘It is about being much more aware of this activity. Sometimes
we concentrate narrowly on abuse within the family. We expect the
abuser to be a close family member, when that isn’t necessarily the
case,’ she argued.

In the wake of the big child abuse inquiries in Nottingham and
Rochdale, which were decried in the media, many councils have
fought shy of looking into sexual exploitation. Bannister expressed
concern that this could lead to more organised abuse rings.

‘Local authority social workers feel there is still a big fear
of investigating sexual exploitation or finding out more about it
because they will be dealt with in the same way workers were in
these abuse cases,’ she said.

Good training and supervision is vital to understand a form of
abuse which is complex and carried out by highly-skilled operators,
said Howarth. ‘Unless you are immersed in it, you are not aware of
what is happening to young people on the streets. People dealing
with this area need managers who understand it and are capable of
giving the right kind of support and advice.’

Maureen Carson, services manager for NSPCC’s London
Investigation Team, regularly carries out such investigations. She
argued for a group of experienced social workers, trained in
operating the DoH Memorandum of Good Practice, to work in this
area. But to be truly effective there has to be a specialist who
knows how paedophiles operate.

‘If you are interviewing a child and it becomes clear there is
more than one child involved in the abuse, you have to plan the
interviews very carefully. The child is a witness but is also a
victim. It is much more complicated,’ explained Carson.

Carson, Bannister and Howarth recommended the careful planning
of investigations on a multi-agency basis, rather than rushing into
taking out a child protection order. If the person is already on
the street, it can adversely lead to their disappearance.

For the young people in care, who have been lured into
prostitution, the call is for the thorough vetting of staff working
in residential homes, and a willingness to listen to allegations
made by young people.

‘Children should be able to tell people and be believed,’ argued
Bannister. ‘There is a great deal of information that shows how
young people have frequently told someone that abuse was taking
place, but there was nothing more than a superficial

Things are made more difficult by the complexity of the
investigations. Carson recalled a case where two men took two boys
abroad to Romania, ostensibly to do some charity work. Everyone
thought it was a great opportunity for the children, only to later
discover that the boys were being used to lure local children into

As the call for practical advice to tackle the problem with
confidence grows, children are left to find their own way. There is
no doubt that those involved in the sexual exploitation of children
are sophisticated. But in its turn, the quality of practice in this
area should be aiming to match that sophistication.

¬ Barnardo’s et al, Splintered Lives: The Sexual
Exploitation of Children in the Context of Children’s Rights and
Child Protection
, Barnardo’s,

‘The men who bought me – the tricks – knew I was an adolescent.
Most of them were in their fifties and sixties. They had daughters
and granddaughters my age- it was clear that I was sexually
inexperienced. So they showed me pornography each time and ignored
my tears as they positioned my body like the women in the pictures
and used me.’

Extract from Splintered Lives

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