Game of patience

Case notes

Practitioner:   Tink Palmer, policy and practice manager, Barnardo’s. 

Field: Children’s services. 

Location: North of England 

Client: Jean West, a 15-year-old young woman previously unknown to any social care agency. 

Case History: Jean turned up a drop-in centre run by a Barnardo’s project that aims to support children and young people who have been abused through prostitution. Not unusually for this young client group, Jean was suspicious, nervous and difficult to engage. Indeed it would take project staff around eight months to build up trust and any sense of a relationship with her. She was also a drugs  user. Staff, however, were unable to discover any other form of sexual exploitation or activity other than prostitution. But it later came to the project’s notice that Jean’s name and picture were being advertised on the internet. 

Dilemma: How do staff deal with the knowledge that Jean is being sold for sex through the internet when she herself has not disclosed this and, indeed, may not even be aware of this? 

Risk factor: If the project staff follow child protection procedures there is a risk that Jean will run away and not come back; if they don’t, further abuse is highly probable.  

Outcome: Jean is drugs-free, stays mostly in accommodation found by the project and says she is no longer controlled by her pimp – although this remains questionable.   

Child prostitution in the UK is a major problem although it remains largely hidden. The 1999 Children’s Society report One Way Street surveyed 50 young adults who are or have been prostitutes and found half had started at the age of 14. Two were only 11. Half said that their first sexual experience was one of abuse, and a quarter had been abused before they were 10.

And as abuse is how the government views child prostitution – an activity that it recognises is not one normally entered by choice but rather through exploitation by coercers (pimps) who feed off young people’s low self-esteem, vulnerability or desperation. Unsurprising then that child prostitutes are so often young people in or on the verge of the care system. And unsurprising that the increase in child prostitution is linked with the internet. Children can be sold for sex at the click of a button.

Aware of the problem, Barnardo’s opened a project in the north of England providing support for young people abused through or at risk of being abused through prostitution. Indeed in the three-year period up to April 2002, the project was one of eight that has worked with 2,250 such children – 1,364 of them girls.

Tink Palmer, policy and practice manager at Barnardo’s, says: “As professionals we’ve not got to think down one line anymore. For example, don’t just think of prostitution as abuse – and that’s it. You have to ask the next question: What else is happening to this young person? Have or are they being trafficked? And also have they been forced into an activity on the internet?”

Jean West was one young woman that began using the drop-in centre of one project. Like so many young people in her situation, she gave very little away.

Indeed, it would take eight months before staff engaged effectively with her. “She said that she had accommodation but would not say where or who she lived with. From what little was known, it was not clear whether she was being exploited in any other way than abuse through prostitution,” says Palmer.

Staff began piecing together what little information they had. Jean would attend the drop-in centre spasmodically. “This is one of the tell-tale signs that someone is controlling her life: she had been attending regularly for a month and staff knew they were engaging with her, then she would not turn up. So someone with influence was preventing her from attending. Also, the project was trying to help her get out of the drugs scene,” says Palmer. But if she hadn’t attended for a while, on her return she would be back on crack-cocaine. It pointed to her being controlled by “a predatory male who had the nous to get Jean hooked on drugs so that he could further control her”, Palmer adds.

Then, if things weren’t worrying enough, it was brought to the project’s attention that Jean was being advertised for sex on the internet. “This confirmed that there was a controlling adult – a pimp -Êin her life, although she hadn’t told staff there was,” says Palmer. Also staff had to consider whether images of Jean being abused were on the internet. “Some perpetrators who have a well connected ring will go as far as to carry out online sexual abuse. Someone will send the message out to their group that at 10am tomorrow morning they are going to be buggering a six-year-old child. Put some money in this account by a set date to make sure you can connect. Just horrific,” says Palmer.

One of the issues for staff is when to step in with child protection. “This has to be around the immediacy of danger,” says Palmer. “But we’re dealing with a 15 year old not a five year old, so they can run away. Unless you can persuade them of the dangers they face – and be as convincing as the controlling adult they are unlikely to have the mindset to go with you. And also you can put them in more danger with their pimp if you’re precipitous without thinking carefully.”

Staff then had to think about how to approach Jean without her running away. “What we have found best is building a relationship by being by their side, showing them unconditional concern and care, and being very practical: advocating for them. They need accommodation, money, food, clothing, good sexual health information,” says Palmer.

The project found Jean somewhere to live, which Palmer says she uses “fairly regularly”. Jean says she is out of control of her pimp – although this is far from certain. But for Palmer, the challenge is always to take the resilience of these young people and seek to transfer it into a way of life that is not destructive to them.

Arguments for risk 

  • Young people such as Jean having spent possibly years being exploited are not going to trust or relate to adults readily. It will take time to build up a rapport – and this is what the project has succeeded in doing. 
  • Jean is 15, clearly resilient and for her to approach the drop-in centre is but the first step on a long walk to safety. However, the risks to her from further abuse and possible violence from her pimp should he find out are very real. To move at the young person’s pace is essential. 
  • When the project realised that Jean’s image was being advertised on the internet it was essential to share this information but in a timely manner. Staff would continue to engage with Jean prompting her towards further disclosure. As Palmer says, “you need to plant seeds and let people go away and think about it and come back.”    

Arguments against risk 

  • Jean, despite her enormous resilience, is clearly a young woman with many needs. Her arrival at the drop-in centre was a strong cry for help – given the consequences that such an action may well bring for her. The project, by not immediately invoking child protection procedures, may leave her to be further abused and exploited with potentially a tragic outcome. 
  • The project became aware of Jean being sold for sex through the internet. Again, while they tried to work through the possible connotations of such information, Jean might well have been sold causing her to move to another area or pimp – and lose contact with the project altogether.  
  • Her controlling adult had further abused Jean by encouraging or forcing her to use drugs. She was addicted to crack-cocaine, which her pimp used to control her. Again to allow this to continue while embarking on a lengthy engagement process could have tragic repercussions.

Independent comment   

The dilemmas posed by this case are those that practitioners working with young people exploited through prostitution confront daily, writes Margaret Melrose. These young people are difficult to engage and it takes considerable time to build up relationships of trust.  

However, the project seems to have been concerned to establish evidence that Jean was being controlled by an abusive adult rather than allowing Jean to provide her own account of her actions. That Jean appeared spasmodically at the project is not incontrovertible evidence that a pimp was controlling her. Other factors may explain this -Êher crack-cocaine use would almost certainly result in erratic behaviour and erratic attendance at the project. Neither is her crack-cocaine use necessarily proof that someone else is controlling her – young people of her age can and do decide to take such drugs for themselves. It is also possible that Jean was advertising herself on the internet or colluding with someone who was. The article cites evidence from One Way Street,  but only 10 of the 50 people interviewed in the study said that someone else had forced them into prostitution.  

On balance, if the project believed that Jean was at risk of significant harm, child protection procedures should have been invoked at the earliest opportunity.  

Margaret Melrose is senior research fellow at the department of applied social studies, University of Luton, and is co-author (with David Barrett and Isabelle Brodie) of One Way Street, the Children’s Society report cited in this article.

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