A national protocol is required to enable independent child trafficking advocates (ICTAs) to cooperate with children’s services and other safeguarding agencies as fully as possible, a report has concluded.
The document, published yesterday by the cross-party independent Modern Slavery Act 2015 review, backed extending the service, which is being trialled in several local authority areas, to enable people aged up to 25 to access it.
Drawing on evidence from the early-adopter areas, which include Greater Manchester, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight and the whole of Wales, the report said the success of ICTAs depended on them being “strongly visible” to social workers and other professionals.
In Wales, the report said, the presence of ICTAs – who advocate for trafficked children and make best-interests decisions – within strong multi-agency settings had helped increase the identification of children and referrals into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM).
The NRM is the government’s framework for identifying victims of trafficking and modern slavery. It has been increasingly used by authorities dealing with young people exploited by county lines drug dealing networks, as well as for children trafficked into the UK.
Statistics released this week by the National Crime Agency (NCA) revealed that the number of UK-citizen children referred under the NRM had risen from 676 in 2017 to 1,421 in 2018
The Modern Slavery Act review backed a twin-track service for foreign-national and UK children, being trialled in Croydon and across the Midlands.
Under this system, the former (provided they lacked effective parental responsibility) benefit from automatic one-to-one ICTA support while the latter receive a “consultative” service via a regional coordinator.
The report added that UK-citizen trafficked children tended to benefit from support from local authority social workers and others, and that the additional involvement of an ICTA could be confusing.
But, it added: “There should not be a presumption that a child with effective parental responsibility does not require a one-to-one service. A child’s needs should be considered on a case-by-case basis where there is evidence a greater level of support is required.”
In backing an extension of the upward age extension to accessing ICTA services, the report noted that “the transition from children’s to adult services can be a very distressing experience for trafficked young people”.
Some had even been drawn back into slavery where gaps in services had left them vulnerable to further exploitation.
The report also recommended removing an 18-month time limit for ICTA provision, for similar reasons. It added that cases involving trafficked children who subsequently go missing should be kept open indefinitely rather than being closed after six months if they have not been found, as currently happens.
“Comprehensive ‘return home’ interviews should be offered and conducted with the child’s consent when they are found so their case with an ICTA can be reopened with stronger evidence behind their disappearance and an understanding of their needs,” it added.
But the review declined to engage with calls from some NGOs to extend ICTA services in England and Wales to all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, as is the case in Scotland and some other EU nations. Its report said this fell outside the scope of the Modern Slavery Act and was therefore beyond its terms of reference.
A spokesperson for Barnardo’s, which has delivered ICTA services in pilot areas, said the charity welcomed the report.
“The proposed recommendations strengthen and extend the provision currently available and ensure all trafficked children are given the most appropriate professional support to keep them safe from harm, reduce the risk of them being re-exploited and help them to rebuild their lives.”
A spokesperson for Hampshire council said: “The findings in the report reflect our experience of working with independent child trafficking advocates. In Hampshire and on the Isle of Wight they have proved to be highly beneficial in supporting unaccompanied trafficked children.
“This crucial role ensures that the child’s voice is taken in to account for all decisions made about them,” the spokesperson added. “We fully support the recommendation to extend the role to include those who are UK citizen trafficked children.”