How legal guardians could improve the care and protection given to trafficked children

A system of legal guardianship for child victims of trafficking has recently been backed by the House of Lords, but what will the role look like in practice? Rachel Carter investigates

Fearing for her life, 15-year-old Patience* waited in a police cell to find out what would happen to her. She didn’t know anybody who understood her situation or anybody that she could trust, and she didn’t feel safe.

At just 12 years old, Patience had been trafficked to the UK and subjected to a life of exploitation, witchcraft rituals and abuse. She was forced into domestic servitude and remained undiscovered for three years until a neighbour contacted the police.

Patience told the police about her abuse and was placed in local authority foster care. She was given little information about any investigation into her trafficking. The police told her that the traffickers had given a different account to hers and seemed like ‘nice people’. Eventually she was told there was not enough evidence to pursue her case.

The charity ECPAT UK’s youth group supported Patience and pushed for her case to be reopened and her traffickers brought to trial. But, disillusioned with the police and other authorities, and feeling like she hadn’t been believed from the start, Patience declined to cooperate with another investigation.

Sadly, her experience reflects that of many children trafficked into the UK. Campaigners argue failures in communication and advocacy on the child’s behalf are often responsible for them going missing from care and being re-trafficked in the UK or abroad.

Independent advocacy

A system of legal guardianship has long been lobbied for as a solution to this problem, and on 7 April the House of Lords voted in favour of an amendment to the Immigration Bill that takes this system a step closer to becoming enshrined in law. But how will this key role work in practice?

How a legal guardian would have helped Patience:

A legal guardian could have ensured that Patience had safe accommodation, ensured she didn’t have to stay in a police cell, improve the communication between the police and Patience, and pushed for a proper investigation into her case.

These initial experiences of the statutory authorities meant that Patience had no trust or faith, which meant that ultimately she felt unable to pursue the prosecution of her traffickers.

Improved dialogue, communication and the ability to hold the statutory agencies to account over their behaviour and actions from the start could have resulted in a successful prosecution of the people that abused her. This would have improved Patience’s experiences and possibly assisted her recovery and rehabilitation.

The vote has been welcomed by campaigners, who believe the amendment is a thorough attempt to define the role of a guardian who can advocate on behalf of a trafficked child in the UK, independent of other authorities.

Trafficked children have absolutely no understanding of the systems in this country, to the point where they don’t know what a social worker is and it is terrifying for them,” says Chloe Setter, head of advocacy, policy and campaigns on child trafficking at ECPAT UK.

“That is why we believe having this consistent person who can build up a relationship of trust and explain things at the child’s pace is hugely important,” Setter says.

ECPAT has outlined a series of ‘essential components’ that should underpin any system of guardianship. For the service to be effective they believe the guardian should have “demonstrable experience and knowledge” of UK child protection systems.

“Ideally they would have worked with refugee children,” says Setter. “Some things like that can be taught but they would have to have a background in youth work or working with young people.”

The charity is also calling for the system to be independent of all other agencies and this is widely recognised by other supporters and in the amendment to the Immigration Bill.

“The system is about a child having someone on their side, acting as a parent would,” says Setter. “The guardian needs to be independent of the local authority in particular and have an overriding duty to act in the child’s best interest at all times.”

“On a professional basis social workers have the right skills, knowledge and experience to perform that specialist role, but I agree it needs to be in addition to the local authority social worker,” adds Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers.

“The guardian may need to challenge the position of the authority on the child’s behalf and they need the freedom to able to do that.”

The coordinating role

According to a 2009 report by the Home Affairs select committee, nearly two-thirds of trafficked children eventually go missing from care. It is hoped that a system of legal guardianship will help to reduce this number by tackling gaps in service provision and creating more joined-up thinking between agencies.

“There are gaps within the legal framework currently where nobody is taking responsibility or filling those gaps,” says Ilona Pinter, policy adviser at the Children’s Society.

Best practice: The Netherlands

The Netherlands system of legal guardianship, Stitching Nidos, is well-regarded around the world as being the best practice model of this type of system.

The independent guardianship and family supervision agency for refugees and asylum seekers was introduced in December 2001 and appoints a guardian to any child who requests asylum in the Netherlands without a parent.

The system is commissioned by the Dutch authorities and the guardian is responsible for supervising the child’s education, care and asylum proceedings. They have statutory power to intervene if the situation requires it and must ensure the child is supported into adulthood.

Mansuri adds: “It is so difficult because so much is expected from a children’s social worker, there are issues around capacity but I would argue this isn’t because of a deficit model around local authority social work, it [guardianship] is just a very distinct role.

“Many authorities used to have specialist teams for supporting trafficked children but due to changes and austerity these have been dismantled to the detriment of those young people.”

Support services for children living in care are also not currently provided past the age of 18, but the amendment would see access to a legal guardian continue until the child victim of trafficking turned 21.

“When kid’s turn 18 there is a huge drop off in services and it is actually a time when they are very, very vulnerable to being re-exploited or going missing,” says Setter. “These are kids that have been abused for a long time and they really struggle with the lack of support.”

Statistics published by the Serious Organised Crime Agency show that 28% of the 549 identified child victims of trafficking in 2012 were sexually exploited and 24% were criminally exploited.

“Although these children will have a lot of the same needs as British children there will be other needs they have in relation to the abuse they’ve suffered,” says Pinter. “They may also have come from countries where they are illiterate or have not had any formal education.”

Under the law, migrant children have the same rights as British children while living in the country, but campaigners say this is not always evident in practice.

The legal guardianship system should also work to break down those barriers and ensure children are helped to properly integrate. “It always comes back to children being viewed as immigrants or criminals [rather than] children who have been abused,” says Setter.

“The guardian would help to shift that balance and make sure that children are viewed as children first and that a child’s individual needs and wishes are put before budgetary issues or discrimination,” she adds.

“So often we see these cases where they are just not getting these things and it causes lifelong damage so if we can improve that earlier on we are creating better people and a better society.”

*Name has been changed

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