By the founder of SPACE (Stop and Prevent Adolescent Criminal Exploitation)
One minute, they’re spinning between the normal routines of family life: work, mealtimes, homework, lifts to clubs and sports events, days out. The next, they’re catching first glimpses of red flags that quickly mushroom – suddenly the parents’ full-time function is finding and questioning strange items, behaviours and actions.
Normality is quickly cramped as a fearful dark world envelopes the home. Initially, it might appear as sudden and challenging teenage angst, quickly escalating to more sinister goings-on, before heart-stopping evidence of criminality shows itself.
The parents’ shock factor is significant. Not only because at the centre of these adult-world revelations are children, but because their children were instilled with a strict moral code, the least likely to be involved in anything remotely out of kilter.
Families contacting us through SPACE Steps, our free national parent and carer service independently share near-identical experiences of transformations in their children. ‘Normal’ families with ‘normal’ children going about their ‘normal’ lives until dragged into an abnormal world. One they never gave a thought to because it couldn’t be more far removed from their lives, or one they consciously kept at bay, actively ensuring their children never connected with it.
Again and again, parents also tell us the same stories of subsequent harmful statutory responses. While they register and grapple with the enormity of the turn in their child and the carnage it’s delivering, ill-equipped services take over the reins.
The phrase ‘extra-familial harm’ is used by academics and spoken by social care safeguarders. Statutory language for county lines, sexual exploitation and radicalisation, risks outside the home. But still these parents’ children are categorised as ‘beyond parental control’ rather than ‘in perpetrators’ control’.
It is grooming and ‘rewiring’ by exploiters that means children from the full spectrum of backgrounds are now fair game for taking the fall for criminal networks. The county lines rewiring model is what triggers children to relinquish their families to stand by criminal gangs, abandon happy homes in favour of trap-houses, sofa-surfing and homelessness, and dismiss their real lives as nothing more than parental fabrications while offering reinvented versions of themselves. The hallmarks of this transformation pepper every parent’s account: behaviours, dress, music, insights, language, associations and geographical areas that bear no relation to the child’s original identity
One child repeatedly found out of area would justify his presence by telling professionals, ‘I basically grew up there’. A total myth but delivered with conviction and credibility – a calculated attempt to bat away pointers to external harms as he effortlessly mimicked and blended with associates from the same area. His shocked parents looked on in horror and disbelief, not only at the double-life exhibited in front of them, but at the chilling ease by which professionals were being persuaded, and their struggle to prioritise child safeguarding over child agency.
Parents have their work cut out because those bringing (all too often irreversible) devastation into their homes aren’t just external harmers: the armour, the ingenious shields, used by criminal exploiters are the parents’ own children, flawlessly knitted into the hearts and minds of their harm-doers. How do parents even begin to deal with such an inconceivable reality? That your own child would discredit you, allege the vilest crimes against you, and happily turn on you at the whim of strangers is on no parents’ list of dreaded life outcomes for their children.
In seeking statutory intervention, parents already reeling from both the mental and physical snatching of their children by the county lines Pied Piper, and the seemingly overnight ditching of their hitherto happy world for a bogus, deadly one, are quickly discovering a third torture: while the language of ‘extra-familial harm’ may exist, it isn’t recognised that way by safeguarders – the gulf between theory and practice is huge.
No alarm bells are activated when the expected parental neglect fails to be located in well-stocked healthy fridges, in children’s thriving education and spotless bedrooms, or flagged in casual but loaded chats with siblings. No cavalry is triggered even when parents directly cite ‘extra-familial harm’. What does follow is further suspicion on parents as statutory heels dig in deeper to identify the ‘cleverly hidden’ neglect that ‘must have led to exploitation’. Despite national focus and awareness and the myriad of academic offerings on extra-familial harm and contextual safeguarding, the hands that do the child snatching and the pulling of child strings remain invisible to statutory responders; by default the exploitation catalyst must be the parents.
‘Twisted to fit’
What comes next for parents is a host of professional suggestions, advice and courses that will have no bearing on their child’s exploitation, nor halt their imminent harm, criminalisation or death.
Family life, jobs and parenting will be examined with a statutory fine tooth comb, its entire function seemingly to identify nuggets of harm to funnel into a pre-determined outcome. ‘Expert’ judgements way off the mark will be packaged as triggers to exploitation, ‘twisted-to-fit’ into statutory intra-familial harm assessments and responses as parents take in the disconnect in disbelief. How difficult can it be to identify harm in or beyond the home?
“Working parents has led him to being exploited.”
Why then did it not happen earlier, or the same harm befall siblings? Indeed, why the stark contrast between exploited child and siblings raised in the same environment by the same parents?
“Parents working long hours hasn’t helped.”
Happy, safe children are not the preserve of those who work shorter hours or not at all. Longer or compressed hours are standard in many roles today and working is not a trigger for child exploitation. Surely the only consideration is whether children are adequately cared and safe while parents are at work?
“Strict parenting has led to him rebelling.”
Who decides what is strict and not, and how would this be measured? Are parents who insist on respect and manners strict? Or those who ensure their children’s whereabouts, activities and friend-circles are known to them? Or those who set times their children must be home? Are they strict if they don’t allow their children to use their mobiles during mealtimes, or to have them in their bedrooms overnight on week nights?
Mobiles feature heavily in child exploitation actions and plans; they are a key gateway to multiple harms. Yet parents who recognise this and proactively and responsibly seek to protect their exploited children are too frequently winding up as the antagonists in the eyes of safeguarders – precisely for positive actions that should not only be identified but applauded.
There is no universal handbook defining ‘strict’ parenting. Pursuing ‘strict’ versus ‘normal’ parenting is too frequently where statutory eyes are taken off the safeguarding ball and shifted towards parents, losing the focus and purpose of child protection from harm beyond our front door.
No two homes’ ‘normal’ or ‘ideal’ is the same. Families don’t function in a uniform way and how we navigate through life and the way we parent is shaped by many aspects, including our upbringing and culture, beliefs and faith, values and principles, lifestyles and aspirations.
One family’s meal-time may be hours earlier than another, maybe to align with adults’ working patterns. Some parents may set a non-negotiable bedtime not only because routine is valued but because it’s a necessary cog in the bigger wheel of inter-dependencies; others may have flexibility so less need for rigidity. Some may provide pocket money to teach budgeting and financial responsibility early on, whilst others deem it unnecessary or know it will lead to unwelcome issues. Some may prioritise homework and education over leisure activities, or have no preference. Some may not allow their children out unaccompanied until a later age than their neighbours or friends.
The typical parenting models of some cultures are often translated as ‘strict’, channelling safeguarders down a wrong and harmful alley that plays into the hands of the child’s exploiters. Some cultures have wholly different sets of expectations and norms that won’t line up with the western notion of parenting. For example, the concept of age 18 signalling adulthood and independence has very little significance within some cultures and much remains as it was on hitting this milestone, with parental rules respected no matter the age of children.
Exploitation cannot be attributed to any parenting styles or choices that prioritise children and their overall wellbeing and safety, but it frequently is. Little wonder parents are left distrustful of statutory professionals, in the same way their exploited children are.
We strongly advise you to….”
Against this background of adversely judged parenting and the inevitable parent-blaming that ensues, parents are ‘strongly advised’ to consider wholly ineffective strategies to combat their child’s exploitation; no trace of contextual safeguarding in sight, exposing the gulf between theory and practice.
“Keep him in.”
How, when the exploitation is linked to the school day? How when windows and doors are being broken to turn up as tasked by exploiters?
“He should be supervised when out.”
How when parents need to work and have younger children to care for?
“Take his mobiles off him.”
A continuous flow of gadgets will appear from outside the home. Money will go missing to buy (secret) replacements. School friends will lend them their mobiles or ‘help out’ with spare or old handsets.
“Change his mobile number.”
The groomed and rewired child will immediately share their new number with his exploiters.
“Strip his bedroom so it’s difficult to hide new or concerning items.”
Items will be ‘parked’ outside the home.
“Move schools or move away.”
Education will be disrupted, for siblings too; jobs affected or lost; local family, friends and support networks cut off when needed most. For what gain? The rewired child will be no safer, with neither distance nor new school setting an effective bar to their exploitation.
“Secure placement is the only resort to keep him safe.”
Has every other avenue of safeguarding been exhausted? Have willing parents been supported to keep the child under their protective roof? Who has the most to benefit from a secure placement – the exploited child, the family or the frontline responders? How will statutory services ensure the child won’t be at continuing (and equal) risk at the placement as they were on the streets? What additional long-term harm will a secure move cause to the child and family? What bespoke intervention will it provide? What if no progress is made?
Parents are ’encouraged’ to follow plans – enter a maze of promised miracles, a Hobson’s choice as non-cooperation leads to further parent-blaming. So, they reluctantly try to follow the path, knowing the hopelessness of what lies ahead: emerging at the exit broken, traumatised, exhausted and worse, further from progress than when they were herded in; the exploiters now even closer to their children.
To what extent does this professional advice and interventions positively influence the activities and actions of the exploiters? Not in the slightest, sadly. While the focus and onus remain solely on the exploited children and families to be, to say, and to do differently, to self-safeguard against exploitation, actions to target perpetrators remain ever-absent. And exploitation and harm run unabated and flourishing in the background – a sounding alarm of clear and present danger that goes unregistered, muffled or deliberately ignored.
‘Extra-familial harm’ has exposed our ill-equipped child protection systems to offer nothing beyond a misjudged, destructive “don’t do that; do this” to exploited children and protective families. Systems, processes and responses that are merely playing at child protection with the vulnerable as guinea pigs.
“We would strongly advise you to…” makes no dent on eliminating risk, harm, criminalisation or death. Indeed, it is unwittingly powering what it purports to reduce.
That needs to matter if we really care about the wellbeing and safety of children, by identifying extra-familial harm as what it is, treating parents as safeguarding partners and urgently building scaffolding around the child with multi-agency partners, who are crucially all on the same page.
SPACE is an anonymous organisation with lived insights and a law-enforcement background. It provides training and consultancy, and campaigns in the interests of those exploited and their families. SPACE Steps is its free national service providing advice and guidance to parents.
More on county lines
- Murdered teen ‘served poorly’ by lack of guidance around county lines victims found away from home area
- County lines response demands children’s safeguarding reform, experts tell select committee
- Criminal exploitation seen as ‘lifestyle choice’ in some cases, finds inspection of county
- ‘We weren’t set up to deal with this’: how councils have responded to county lines