How the latest research into child trafficking in the UK should inform social work practice

Social workers should not discount children’s claims to have been trafficked even if they sound extraordinary, says Emma Kelly, a lecturer in social work at University of Salford.

Latest research findings

Child trafficking involves moving children (up to the age of 18) across or within national borders for purposes including sexual exploitation, forced labour and domestic servitude.

While we do not know exactly how many children are trafficked to the UK each year, most victims will be aged 12 or older, and from one of up to 40 countries. Both girls and boys are trafficked (CEOP, 2011). Internal trafficking describes citizen children who are moved and sexually exploited within the UK; the majority of these victims are girls.  

Research confirms that there are many obstacles to identifying trafficked children (Pearce, et al., 2009). Practitioners may not recognise the signs or disbelieve what children say because it sounds so extraordinary.

Because they have been groomed to keep silent, and threatened with violence to themselves and family members, children rarely make disclosures. Moreover, they may not trust statutory authorities and fear being deported (Kelly & Bokhari, 2011).

Much of the evidence that points to trafficking will be circumstantial, such as where the child was found (e.g. in a cannabis factory, a suburban brothel or working in a takeaway). Unfortunately, a key indicator of trafficking is the child going missing.

As up to 50% of trafficked children go missing, it is important that children’s services act speedily to support and protect them. If a child disappears, the case should remain open until they have been located.

The impact on practice

It is important to be open to the possibility that a child may have been trafficked, even in rural areas of the UK. Just because a child’s account sounds extraordinary or, as is often the case, the same as other children’s accounts, does not mean it is not true.

However, do not force a disclosure from a trafficked child and avoid repeated questioning, as this may re-traumatise them. If and when they are able to talk about their experiences, they will; in the meantime, use the London Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) Trafficked Children Toolkit (2011) to assist with identification and assessment.

This includes a risk-assessment matrix which has been highly rated by practitioners (LSCB, 2011), as well as a trafficking assessment which can assist with the core assessment. These investigations and assessment should be led by a qualified and experienced social worker with support from a senior manager.
Maximise the ‘golden hour’ (first 24 hours) to gather as much information as you can, including taking a photograph of the child.

Also consider removing their mobile phone (so that traffickers cannot get hold of them) and giving them written information about what to do if they do disappear but later need help. If they disappear, the national Missing from Home & Care procedures must be implemented.

Safety is paramount and care needs to be taken with interpreters as well as the location in which the child is placed. Suspected trafficked children need to be accommodated safely in foster care and monitored. Foster carers also need to be aware of the specific support and protection needs of trafficked children.

Child trafficking is a complex child protection matter and requires a co-ordinated multi-agency response (Pearce et al., 2009; London LSCB, 2011).

Questions for practice

1. Why it is hard to identify if a child has been trafficked?

2. Why might trafficked children go missing so quickly from local authority care and what can children’s services do to prevent this?

3. What guidance should be followed in cases of suspected child trafficking?

References and further reading

Child trafficking in the UK: Community Care Inform research review

Child trafficking and asylum: Community Care Inform guide

CEOP (2011), Child Trafficking Update, London: Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre

Department of Health (2002), Children missing from care and from home: Good practice guidance

Kelly, E. and Bokhari, F. (2011), Separated Children: Safeguarding Refugee, Trafficked & Migrant Children in the UK, London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

London Safeguarding Children Board trafficking resources

Pearce, J., Hynes, P., and Bovarnick, S. (2009), Breaking the wall of silence: Practitioners’ responses to trafficked children and young people, NSPCC and The University of Bedfordshire

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