Key issues and principles
Children are victims
Children and young people who are sexually exploited should not be regarded as displaying bad or criminal behaviour: they are the victims of sexual abuse. The responsibility for the sexual exploitation of children or young people lies with the abuser; either the person who engages in sexual activity with the child, or the person who grooms the child and/or organises the exploitation. The focus of police investigations and of prosecutions should be on those who coerce, exploit and abuse children and young people.
A multi-agency response
Effective safeguarding depends on effective joint working between different agencies and professionals that work with children and young people, including education services, health services (including sexual health services), preventative services, therapeutic mental health services, and social care, together with criminal justice agencies and voluntary sector services supporting children and families. The commissioned specialist CSE service plays a key role in supporting young people who are being sexually exploited in South Gloucestershire.
All agencies should be alert to the risks of sexual exploitation and be able to take action and work together when an issue is identified.
Within that framework, tackling sexual exploitation requires a three-pronged approach: prevention, protection and prosecution.
A proactive response
Action to tackle CSE should be proactive, focusing on prevention, early identification, intervention and protection, as well as on disrupting activity and prosecuting perpetrators. It is important for cases to be managed so that interventions to safeguard children and young people also support the gathering of evidence to increase the chance of successful criminal prosecutions of their perpetrators, thereby safeguarding potential future victims. It is important that information held by professionals concerning young people at risk of CSE, possible perpetrators / venues where CSE may occur is proactively shared with police under child protection information sharing arrangements.
To help children and young people achieve good outcomes it is important to identify issues and problems early and to take prompt preventative action. Early intervention is likely to be far more effective than intervention at a later stage when the impact on the child or young person’s health or development is likely to have escalated. Research by Coventry University (Brown et al, 2016) identified a number of potential vulnerability indicators of becoming a victim of CSE. These included: going missing, running away, family difficulties, association with gangs, first sexual contact at a young age, a poor relationship with parent, having fewer friends than peers, frequent and particular use of social media and being isolated.
A child centred approach
Children at risk of CSE will often be in high risk situations and could be isolated from protective, nurturing adults. They will need to be encouraged to express their wishes and feelings to make sense of their particular circumstances and contribute to decisions that affect them. Professionals need to support children to become an active partner in their recovery and reintegration (DfE, 2017). Of particular relevance is the impact of those who may have groomed, conditioned, coerced and abused them. Child sexual exploitation can impact on every aspect of a child’s life, such as their:
- physical and mental health
- education and training
- family relationships
- friends and social relationships
- how they view others
- their relationships with their own children in the future
(Safe and Sound, 2013)
Children may also be under very strong pressure, intimidated, afraid and/or dependent (e.g. for love, affection, drugs) on those that have exploited them. Children may therefore reject offers of help and support and appropriate interventions need to be designed to address this. Professionals need to understand the impact of trauma on a child’s presentation and behaviour and to look beyond the presenting behaviour(s) and exercise professional curiosity (DfE, 2017).
Even where a child is old enough to legally consent to sexual activity, the law states that consent is only valid where they make a choice and have the freedom and capacity to make that choice. If a child feels they have no other meaningful choice, are under the influence of harmful substances or are fearful of what might happen if they don’t comply (all of which are common features in cases of child sexual exploitation) consent cannot legally be given, whatever the age of the child (Child Sexual Exploitation. Definition and a guide for practitioners, local leaders and decision makers working to protect children from sexual exploitation, 2017).
Protecting 16 and 17 year olds
It should not be assumed that children aged 16 and 17 years are safe from CSE. A young person who has been subject to a complex pattern of life experiences including sophisticated grooming and priming processes that have brought them to a point where they are at risk of, or are abused, through CSE, are often not able to recognise the exploitative relationships and situations they are in. They may even present as being in control. The Children Acts of 1989 and 2004 relate to all children aged under 18 years.
Information Sharing Advice for Safeguarding Practitioners 2015 provides guidance about sharing information. It states that in deciding whether there is a need to share information professionals need to consider their legal obligations, including whether they have a duty of confidentiality to the child. Where there is such a duty, the professional may lawfully share information if the child consents or if there is a public interest of sufficient force. This must be judged by the professional on the facts of each case. Where there is a clear risk of significant harm to a child, or serious harm to adults, the public interest test will almost certainly be satisfied. However, there will be other cases where practitioners will be justified in sharing some confidential information in order to make decisions on sharing further information or taking action – the information shared should be proportionate. The child’s best interests must be the overriding consideration in making any such decision including in the cases of under-age sexual activity. Any decision whether or not to share information must be properly documented.
Staff should be aware that when a young person discloses sexual exploitation to them, they will need to take action, and this may include sharing information with the police and local authority children’s social care. This should be explained to the young person.
In view of this, staff should be aware of the need not to ask leading questions to young people who make disclosures of exploitation. Questions should be open so this does not compromise the police investigation. Staff should also be mindful that their recording may need to be used in a subsequent criminal investigation. It is therefore strongly advised that staff keep any contemporaneous (i.e. handwritten) notes that have been made, these may be required in any subsequent court hearings.
Involvement of parents/ carers
Parents and carers can feel excluded from work with children who are being, or who are at risk of being, sexually exploited by perpetrators external to the family. Where assessment shows it is safe to do so, parents and family should be regarded as part of the solution. It is crucial to work with them not only to assess the risks of harm faced by the child but to help them understand what the child has experienced, the risks they face and how they can be supported and protected. (Child Sexual Exploitation. Definition and a guide for practitioners, local leaders and decision makers working to protect children from sexual exploitation, 2017). This working relationship can be difficult if the outcome of the S47 enquiries results in the need to convene an ICPC, particularly when the concerns relate to sexual exploitation and where there are not concerns about parental attempts to protect children– it is important that parents understand the reason for the ICPC and understand professional’s concerns about where the risk to the child is coming from.
A note about use of language
The way professionals talk about and to children and their families about sexual exploitation can have a profound impact on how children are viewed, understood and how they then view and understand themselves and the situations they are in. Using language like “choice” and “risk taking behaviour” is unhelpful, inaccurate and in no way focuses on the abusive nature of what is or could be happening to children. Children and families need to be supported to understand issues around consent, grooming and the complexities children who are being sexually exploited can face. Children cannot consent to their own abuse. By using language that reflects the abusive, exploitative nature of situations that children encounter helps to develop a clearer understanding of sexual exploitation and firmly places the blame on the perpetrators of the abuse.