A multi-agency project in Lancashire provides support and guidance to children at risk of being sexually exploited and their parents. Molly Garboden reports
“One of the main things we have to do is make sure parents know the child isn’t to blame.” Lindsay Dalton is talking about families of sexually exploited children in Blackburn with Darwen. Dalton runs a programme, developed by Engage, which fights child exploitation, to provide support and information to parents and victims. It also helps to determine the steps needed to prosecute perpetrators.
“It’s a huge shock to be told that your child has been exploited or is at risk. Parents often don’t know how to react,” Dalton says.
“If they don’t blame the child, they’re likely to feel guilty themselves, like they’ve let the child down, so what we do is make sure the blame is in the right place and that’s with the offender.”
Engage’s programme takes parents through all the steps of child exploitation. Initially, children recommended to the scheme are assessed to determine whether they have been exploited or are at risk of being so. Their phone calls might be monitored and social networking accounts accessed to determine further the risk, with counselling an option in some cases. Parents are given one-to-one sessions with Engage professionals who take them through the process of exploitation explaining “grooming” and tactics used by perpetrators.
The parents then join awareness groups, run by Engage professionals, where they continue the learning process. After this, they can attend informal meetings with other parents in the programme.
“This is a great chance for parents to get together with other people who know what they’ve been through,” says Dalton.
“One thing we’ve seen in helping these families is how isolating this situation can be. There are many misconceptions about exploitation and people often judge parents and their children who have been victims. So forming these groups can decrease some of that isolation.”
Engage also has a prosecution support team, which specifically looks after cases going to court. In these cases, Dalton adds, it is necessary to give parents a lot more information. Not only do they need to know details of court proceedings, but also how to react if a perpetrator tries to intimidate them or their child before the case is heard.
As a preventive measure, Engage also runs a six-week course for schools in order to raise awareness of exploitation among young people. Sometimes the course is targeted at young people who have been subjects of concern for teachers. Other times, the course is worked into the curriculum of the school’s personal social and health education.
In future, Engage wants to expand into SureStart groups that deliver parenting sessions.
what is engage?
The programme’s roots lie in a police operation in Blackburn. Operation Engage was set up to investigate the high percentage of missing young people in the area, which is one of the highest in Lancashire.
The investigation determined that many of these young people were being sexually exploited.
Over time, Engage gained momentum and became independent of the police-run operation.
Now, it is a multi-agency organisation working with Barnardo’s, the Coalition for the Removal of Pimping, the police, social services and other bodies interested in fighting child exploitation.
Case study: “Something was wrong but we couldn’t tell what”
Susan’s* 14-year-old daughter, Alison*, was targeted by groomers last year. Susan was unaware at first but then noticed extreme changes in Alison’s behaviour.
“She became increasingly difficult to understand,” Susan recalls. “She was having terrible temper tantrums and wanting to go out to places she’d never gone before. She was spending all her time on the phone – it got to the point that she was sleeping with the phone under her. We knew something was wrong but couldn’t tell what.”
One evening, after being told she wasn’t allowed to go out, police had to be called after Alison threatened to kill herself or attack the family with a pair of scissors.
“As soon as I told them what had been going on, the two officers looked at each other and together they said, ‘We need to get in touch with Engage’,” Susan says.
After an assessment, it emerged that Alison was being groomed.
The grooming has been stopped, but the family have far to go before relationships are normalised. The emotional strain has been huge, especially on Alison.
“She feels like she’s been duped,” Susan says. “She thought this was someone who cared about her, potential boyfriend material, and that’s important to a young girl. But Engage told her that this kind of relationship was not normal and that’s been hard.”
Of Engage, Susan is full of praise. “There are times when we’ve felt so desperate and Engage is always at the end of the phone with their support and advice,” she says. “I actually feel lucky – which sounds strange – but I feel lucky that I live in Blackburn and have this programme available to me.”
* Names have been changed
This article is published in the 4 February issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Engage in the battle against child sexual exploitation