Falling prey to prostitution

Some young people in care see prostitution as a way of getting
the attention and affection that is missing from their lives.
Natalie Valios reports on what is being done to stop children
falling into a life of exploitation.

A 14-year-old girl in residential care takes a call on her
mobile phone, disappears from the home for a couple of days,
returns for a change of clothes, and then goes out again. You know
she is being drawn into prostitution, but as her residential social
worker, what can you do?

Last year, government guidance was published to help
professionals working with vulnerable children address this sort of
scenario.1 The guidance highlights how to set up local,
multi-agency protocols and, for the first time, the government
recognises the long-standing argument from children’s
charities that young people involved in prostitution should be seen
as victims of child sexual abuse, not criminals, in most cases.

Many children in care have had disturbed backgrounds, leaving
them with low self-esteem and easy prey for adults who want to
exploit them. Looking for something to replace the lack of
affection in their lives, girls can become involved with older men
who promise to “love” them. They may not see themselves as being
abused, but as being in a “relationship”. For others, the road to
prostitution can be through peer pressure, or to feed a drug

Manchester Council was one of the first local authorities in the
country to pilot the government guidance. In 1999 it enlisted the
Children’s Society project Safe in the City to train its
residential social workers. Now the University of Manchester has
brought the project in to carry out training sessions on
prostitution as part of a Diploma in Social Work module.

The project has also developed programmes with the local
authority’s children’s homes, part of which looks at
managing risk and inappropriate relationships. Under Manchester
Council’s local protocol, residential social workers are
expected to report to their manager if they have any suspicions
about a child in their care being enticed into prostitution. A
multi-agency strategy meeting is then called, involving social
services, police, and the project, which looks at the young
person’s environment, their support network and tries to
identify any gaps.

Clear plans and responsibilities should come out of the meeting,
and if they are involved in prostitution an exit strategy should be
put together. If it is decided that the child needs to be removed
for their own safety, the national shortage of safe places or
foster carers can mean he or she is sent to secure accommodation or
an out-of-authority placement. More commonly, exit strategies
involve re-engaging young people with education, or alternative
activities to offer them an opportunity to change their

“The lynchpin is whether the young person will engage with
whatever strategy is drawn up,” says Safe in the City project
leader Andy McCullough. “We can have all the meetings we want, but
if the young person isn’t engaging there’s very little
the local authority can do except warn them and highlight it to the
police and others.”

McCullough’s concern is that many residential social
workers are not even aware of the government guidance. In the past
six weeks, four local authorities have contacted him to ask whether
there are any protocols to deal with child prostitution.

McCullough believes the best strategy is to tell young people
about the dangers they face from the first day they are in care.
Children who have entered the care system for the first time are
particularly at risk because of feelings of isolation. And
it’s not just girls. Many boys become involved in
prostitution because they are gay and have experienced homophobic
reactions to their sexuality, leaving them alone and

But for both boys and girls, prevention and early intervention
are key, says McCullough, as once a young person is involved in
prostitution it is harder to extricate them.

Mark Tierney, project manager of Bradford-based In-Place
Project, agrees: “We need to get them before the pendulum swings
past a certain point. If we don’t reach them in time, they
will feel good for all the wrong reasons, because they are earning
money or receiving presents.”

The In-Place Project works with looked-after children whose
placements are at risk of breaking down for various reasons,
including prostitution.

Warning signs, such as mobile phone calls, unexplained absences
or bringing back money could be early indicators, and should be
monitored. Residential staff should be aware of who is phoning
young people – if it sounds like a 30-year-old man rather than a
15-year-old boy check it out, says Tierney, who has previously
worked as a residential social worker in a children’s

If the same car repeatedly turns up to pick up a girl or boy,
take down the registration number and get it police checked.
Investigate taxi firms that come to the home – Tierney has known of
some which have been the transport element of the prostitution
system, picking up young people and ferrying them to their

Prostitution is becoming far more sophisticated than hanging
around on street corners. The arrival of mobile phones and the
internet makes it harder for staff to know who is contacting the
young people, says Tierney.

Young people are more likely to confide in staff about what is
going on in their lives if the home’s environment encourages
them to form strong, trusting relationships with staff who can act
as role models.

Tierney estimates that about one in four girls in care in the
West Yorkshire region could be involved in prostitution. What will
not work in curbing this problem, he says, is being scared to
tackle it. “If we believe we can’t do anything, then we never

1 Department of Health, Home Office,
Department for Education and Employment, Welsh Assembly,
Safeguarding Children Involved in Prostitution, DoH,

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