Criminal exploitation seen as ‘lifestyle choice’ in some cases, finds inspection of county

Some practitioners failing to see criminally exploited children as victims due to lack of understanding, finds multi-agency probe in Northumberland

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Practitioners in Northumberland have an ‘underdeveloped’ understanding of child criminal exploitation, including seeing it as a ‘lifestyle choice’ in some cases, an inspection has found.

The joint targeted inspection of the county’s multi-agency response to child exploitation found training had not had a consistent impact on practice, which meant exploitation – other than child sexual exploitation – may not be recognised or responded to.

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The inspection found agencies did not have an up-to-date profile of criminal exploitation in the county and safety plans did not consistently address the risks for children with missing episodes known to be at risk of criminal exploitation.

Inspectors found  “very few social workers” had accessed local safeguarding children board training on criminal exploitation, and though they had received short briefings on the topic, had not read them. Police staff within the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) also had limited knowledge of the subject.

‘Lifestyle choice’

“In some cases, children’s records showed that practitioners viewed children’s behaviour as part of a lifestyle choice,” the report found. “This limits their ability to see children as victims of exploitation.”

More positively, schools had a good understanding of criminal exploitation and were proactive at ensuring risks to children were minimised in schools.

Child criminal exploitation has received considerable media attention in recent years –  particularly the risks associated with ‘county lines’ activity – which is when gangs and organised crime groups groom and exploit children to travel across counties to sell drugs.

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The inspection, carried out by Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission, HMI Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, and HMI Probation in June, included an evaluation of the multi-agency ‘front door’, where services first come into contact with children at risk of exploitation, and a review of relevant cases.

CSE response embedded in practice

The report found that the recognition of, and response to, children at risk of sexual exploitation was embedded in practice. The introduction of a CSE practitioner in the MASH had been “instrumental” in raising the quality of risk assessments and safety planning for children who are identified as being at high risk of sexual exploitation.

The report also found that child protection enquiries were timely, as was escalation to initial child protection conferences where children were identified as being at significant risk. Inspectors also found social workers were engaging with children in a sensitive way to help them tell their stories.

The council was praised for protecting children’s social care resources, while inspectors said that managers had worked hard to make the workforce more stable.

This included retaining social workers who undertook their assessed and supported year in employment with the council, and creating posts for assistant team managers and advanced practitioners. As a result the number of social workers has increased in the last two years, and caseloads have become more manageable.

Need to consider wider networks

The inspection found that assessments where exploitation was a factor were timely, but of varying quality, and some did not sufficiently consider a child’s wider family networks.

“There is an over-reliance on parents’ self-reporting at times, and this is a missed opportunity to understand children’s networks of support more thoroughly,” the report said.

It also found that children’s social care managers were not “consistently effective” at ensuring plans were progressed on time, or at critically challenging social workers to ensure that they had explored and analysed the underlying risk factors for child exploitation.

Another area identified for improvement was the format through which the MASH received referrals, with no single consistent approach. Inspectors warned that this could mean trigger factors that present when a child was at risk may be missed.

Emphasising children’s views

Paula Mead, independent chair of Northumberland Safeguarding Children Board, said: “It is particularly pleasing that inspectors found that children are being listened to, and their words are being recorded and acted upon. It is right that children’s views and feelings should be at the heart of what we are all doing.
“The report also notes where further work is needed, and a number of these actions have already been completed. Going forward we will build on those recommendations to continue to make further improvements to keep children and young people safe.”

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