Research Realities: safeguarding trafficked children (research by NSPCC)

Academic Anna Gupta examines findings that point the way towards better services for trafficked children

Title: Breaking the Wall of Silence: Practitioners’ responses to trafficked children and young people

Authors: Jenny J Pearce, Patricia Hynes and Silvie Bovarnick

Institution: The NSPCC worked alongside researchers from the University of Bedfordshire.


This study focused on trafficked children and young people and how practitioners can best identify these children and respond in ways that safeguard and promote their welfare. The research was commissioned by the NSPCC following concerns raised over the past few years by charities and campaigners about the identification and care of trafficked children. The study was designed to explore the complexities facing practitioners, and identify good child and young person-centred practice in work with trafficked children and young people.


A review of existing research on trafficked children was undertaken and the researchers used focus groups, interviews and case studies to explore the experiences of trafficked children and issues faced by practitioners. The researchers ran focus groups across three sites involving 65 practitioners and conducted one-to-one interviews with selected practitioners. A total of 37 case files of children and young people were reviewed.

Research findings

The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (The Palermo Protocol) that came into force in 2003 provided the first internationally agreed definition of human trafficking. This definition recognises the elements of the “process” of recruitment and transportation; the “means” via the use of violence, threats or coercion; and the “purposes” of exploitation which include sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery or servitude.

The review of research on trafficked children highlighted the limited reliable data available on the extent of the trafficking of children and young people, as well as their experiences and needs. The report identified the lack of a requirement or mechanism for local authorities to record the identification of trafficked children. One of its recommendations is for improved data collection and the development of safe and effective systems for storing and sharing information on trafficked children within and across local authorities.

Reasons for trafficking

The study highlights the diverse circumstances and experiences of the children and young people. The reasons for the trafficking include sexual exploitation, forced marriage, domestic servitude, benefit fraud, restaurant work and drug trafficking. Practitioners expressed concern that the different forms of trafficking can be overshadowed by the dominant image of a girl trafficked for sexual exploitation, and children failed to be identified and supported as a result.

While the main focus of the study was on children and young people trafficked from abroad, several cases of children who were trafficked within the UK for the purposes of sexual exploitation were also identified. Without wanting to marginalise those children or their need for effective services, the study highlighted the additional pressures facing children trafficked from abroad to an unfamiliar country, with few if any existing networks, and insecure immigration status.

Legal status

A number of legal and policy contexts affect the lives of children trafficked from abroad and influence the work of practitioners. These include the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), the Children Act 1989 and immigration and asylum legislation. Practitioners raised concerns about how age assessments and insecure immigration status can dominate responses to children and young people, who may not receive the same treatment as that enjoyed by children born in the UK despite their entitlements. A key recommendation of this study was that interventions must be based around the child or young person’s best interests and their welfare being paramount, as opposed to immigration and asylum concerns.

The study highlighted the difficulties faced by children and young people disclosing that they have been trafficked. They will have been coerced by methods including threats to themselves, family and friends, and may be unable to speak about the painful nature of their experiences. To enable the children and young people to disclose their experiences, they need to be able to develop relationships with practitioners based on trust and with the help of skilled and safe interpreting services.


The report recommends the allocation of a key worker trained in safeguarding work with trafficked children to be available on the point of their entry to the UK, in order to develop a trusting and supportive relationship and oversee the management of the child or young person’s case. Going missing from placements was a problem identified both in relation to children trafficked into and within the UK. Responses from practitioners highlighted the importance of a designated key worker working with police to keep the search for the child a focus of intervention when they have gone missing.

The study also recommends the training of specialist foster carers and residential workers who can provide emergency and 24-hour supervision and care for the child or young person. The study acknowledged the emotional impact of the work on practitioners, which can lead to children not always being listened to or believed. Reflective practice within a supportive supervisory context was recognised as being essential for practitioners.

The need for effective inter-professional work is highlighted in the report, in both the identification and subsequent service provision. The experiences of trafficked children can have profound and harmful effects on their emotional, educational and physical development. These children require safeguarding services aimed at protecting them from further abuse and exploitation, as well as effective interventions from social care, health and education services that can promote their welfare in the longer-term.

The centrality of the Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs) in the provision of effective service for trafficked children is highlighted in this report. The report contains several recommendations for LSCBs, including a scoping exercise, mechanisms for collating and sharing information, development of a protocol and provision of specialist services, such as trained staff offering outreach and therapeutic services for trafficked children.

The withdrawal of the UK’s reservation in 2008 to the UNCRC in respect of children without secure immigration status reinforced the right for all children in this country to have their welfare safeguarded and promoted. Trafficked children are among the most powerless and vulnerable in our society. They are abused, exploited and silenced. This study provides valuable information on the experiences and needs of trafficked children and young people, as well as guidance on how agencies and individual practitioners can produce effective responses that safeguard and promote their needs and rights. For every child to truly matter, the recommendations of this study need to be taken seriously.

Anna Gupta is a senior lecturer in social work at Royal Holloway, University of London

Links and Resources

Breaking the Wall of Silence: Practitioners’ responses to trafficked children and young people is available at

 The Department for Children, Schools and Families has produced guidance for professionals and agencies on safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children who may have been trafficked.

 The London Safeguarding Children Board has produced a protocol for safeguarding trafficked and exploited children with guidance for a range of practitioners and agencies.

 ECPAT UK is a campaigning organisation that provides research and information to prevent exploitation and protect child victims of trafficking –

● The National Child Trafficking Advice and information Line (CTAIL) is run by the NSPCC and provides advice for anyone with concerns about human trafficking. Call on 0800 107 7057 or e-mail Further information 

Practice points for practitioners

Continuity of relationships: It is important for children and young people to have continuity in their relationships with professionals. They are more likely to disclose information about their experiences in the context of a supportive and trusting relationship with an adult.

Work with interpreters: Children and young people may be anxious about the use of interpreters from their own community. Practitioners need to take care with their choice of interpreters, basing their decision on training, skills and experience rather than simply cultural similarities.

Sensitivity to the experiences of children: Children and young people who have been trafficked are frequently forced into early adulthood, with very different experiences of “childhood” and “home”. Practitioners should be careful not to make assumptions and base their assessments and interventions on the needs of each individual child or young person.

Attention to the work’s emotional impact: Work with children and young people can be extremely traumatic and practitioners need to be aware of the impact on themselves. Critically reflective practice in a supportive supervisory context is essential for effective service provision.

Find out more

We invite practitioners to attend our conference, Child Trafficking in the UK: Multi-agency approaches to stemming exploitation in this country, 25 March 2010, Central London

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