All UK public bodies have new responsibilities when it comes to dealing with child trafficking. Will they help to protect children at risk of exploitation and abuse, asks Louise Hunt
Last December, the UK signed up to a European convention that introduces new measures to tackle the growing problem of child trafficking.
The move places a responsibility on the government to develop a centralised system for assessing and responding to child trafficking cases, while local authorities and other agencies are expected to identify then flag up potential victims.
Child traffickers have long eluded child protection and law enforcement agencies. It was revealed earlier this year thata local authority children’s home near Heathrow airport was used for years by criminal gangs to spirit away migrant children into the drugs or prostitution trades.
This exposed how trafficking could easily take place right under statutory noses, let alone behind the closed doors of private homes unknown to the authorities.
Just how difficult child protection agencies find identifying victims of trafficking is the subject of new research published by children’s charities.
Breaking the Wall of Silence, an NSPCC and University of Bedfordshire study of responses to children who have been victims of trafficking, found a “tangible level of confusion” among children’s services staff about the definition of trafficking and how to apply it to the young people in their care.
Many forms of trafficking
Published last month, the research is based on interviews with 37 trafficked children and 72 children’s professionals in three areas of England. NSPCC senior researcher Dr Patricia Hynes says: “Trafficking can involve a complex mix of extreme and varied forms of abuse, that can take time to uncover fully. In some cases we examined it took a year for a child to reveal enough about what had happened to them for the practitioner to realise this was a trafficked child.”
The Children’s Society is also carrying out research into migrant children who are exploited, particularly in unregistered private foster care arrangements.
The lead researcher, who for personal safety reasons does not want to disclose her identity, says that young people over 16 are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, often in domestic servitude, while being more likely to miss thresholds for support from statutory services.
Without these safety nets, she says, they are at even greater risk of other forms of exploitation, such as prostitution. “Social services should consider this age group particularly vulnerable when assessing whether they should be taken into care,” she says.
She also calls for an improvement in processes for identifying and monitoring private foster care arrangements to ensure exploitation is not going on.
Interviews with young people who are being abused in these circumstances have revealed they are visited infrequently by a stream of social workers who do not always speak to the young person on their own, the researcher explains. “There should be consistency and regularity of social workers, and they should give the young person a phone number to contact them on if they need to,” she says.
The Council of Europe Convention on Human Trafficking, which came into force in the UK on 1 April and applies to adults and children and all forms of exploitation, should go some way to addressing these issues.
To improve the central collection of information about, and response to, trafficking the government has set up the National Referral Mechanism. Under this framework, local authorities have a duty to identify and report victims of trafficking through the new multi-agency UK Human Trafficking Centre, which handles all cases apart from those uncovered as part of the immigration process, which are dealt with by the UK Border Agency.
The UKHTC and UKBA assess referrals and, if they find reasonable grounds to believe someone has been trafficked, the victim is granted a 45-day recovery and reflection period so their accommodation and support needs can be assessed before a decision is made on whether they can be granted renewable residence permits.
The government has also bolstered victims’ rights by introducing a code of practice that includes a minimum set of standards they can expect from criminal justice agencies, and support from local authorities to access services to meet their practical and emotional needs.
But even before the UK ratified the convention and these provisions were put in place, the London Safeguarding Children’s Board, with the Association of Chief Police Officers, was already working on a multi-agency toolkit to tackle the problems practitioners face in identifying and referring trafficked children.
Seizing the opportunity presented by the convention to turn this into a national programme, the London SCB is now piloting the toolkit with 12 local authorities across the UK in the hope that it will mean children’s services and other agencies are better able to work together to protect trafficked children.
Philip Ishola, service manager at Harrow Children’s Services, is co-ordinating the national pilot for London SCB. “We developed the toolkit because we had concerns that children may be trafficked, but local authorities had limited mechanisms in place to identify and respond to cases,” he says.
“The toolkit is about providing the tools to local authorities to identify victims and clarify which agencies should be involved.
“We are also providing a really intense training package for all agencies involved in the pilot to raise awareness of the impact of child trafficking and referral pathways and to identify what, as a practitioner, you need to do to protect these children. Ideally all children’s service teams should have training in child trafficking. This is not always the case at the moment. But that is our vision.”
Nominate a professional
The toolkit also recommends that local authorities nominate a professional to become a trafficked children lead, able to develop expertise in the area and offer advice to other professionals and partner agencies they work with.
The toolkit pilots will end next March and, following evaluation, an updated toolkit will be available for all councils and partners to use – although anyone is free to use the current toolkit, as long as they comply with the national referral requirements and give feedback into the monitoring and evaluation process.
While welcoming the convention and toolkit, NSPCC lead researcher and University of Bedfordshire professor of young people and public policy Jenny Pearce would like to see the government do more to ensure they are acted upon.
“Whether it will be enough on its own I don’t know,” Pearce says. “I would like to see the DCSF make it a requirement for local authorities to have a designated child trafficking practitioner or sub-committee, alongside staff training.
Safeguarding board inspections
“I would also like the annual local safeguarding children’s board inspections to include a requirement to look at how they are accommodating the convention and the toolkit and, if they are not using the toolkit, what protocols are they using?”
Chris Beddoe, director of Ecpat UK, a campaign group against child trafficking and sexual exploitation, says one of the most significant changes affecting local authorities as a result of the convention is the stipulation to treat young victims whose age cannot be verified as children (see box, opposite).
“For trafficked children this is really important because in most cases they have no identifiable documentation,” Beddoe says. “There are far too many age disputes and there is a prevailing attitude that if a victim is 18 or over ‘we don’t have to worry about them’.”
Together, the convention and toolkit offer a real chance to improve systems for identifying and supporting children who have been trafficked.
But, above all else, avoiding a repeat of the Hounslow children’s home situation will require all agencies and practitioners to consider child trafficking issues as part of their standard response when dealing with child protection concerns.
Public bodies’ duties
Article 10 of the Council of Europe convention, which focuses on identification of the victims of trafficking, places obligations on public authorities in contact with them to:
● Identify victims of trafficking correctly.
● Ensure they have staff trained and qualified in preventing and combating human trafficking and in identifying and helping victims.
● Co-operate with other relevant authorities as well as with relevant support organisations.
● Presume that a victim is a child if there is uncertainty about their age, until their age is verified.
● In cases of unaccompanied child victims of trafficking, provide representation of the child by a legal guardian, organisation or authority that is responsible to act in the best interests of the child
The learning curve
● Breaking the Wall of Silence, NSPCC
This article is published in the 2 July issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Slowing the traffic