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Amy Edwards is a project worker at our London US Service, one of our child sexual exploitation services. Our recent report 'Old Enough to Know Better' shows that older teenages are particularly at risk of child sexual exploitation, yet do not have the same protections as younger children to be kept safe, recover or get justice.
We want to double our support and help more than 1,000 children and young people right now in our specialist services across the country.
Here Amy answers some of our questions about her work supporting young people affected by sexual exploitation.
As the project worker for the Us Service, I work with young people with learning disabilities and/or autism who have experienced, or are at risk of experiencing, sexual exploitation.
I support young people through one to one work and also attend professional meetings so I can advocate for the young person and make sure they’re kept informed.
I also support them to access other services, like sexual health clinics and social groups. If they want me to, I can join them for police investigation interviews. It can help to have someone there who they’re comfortable with.
At the start, I focus on building trust with the young person. I do this by being consistent and transparent, while making it clear that seeing me is their choice – it’s a voluntary service. I try to meet them at times and locations that are convenient and accessible to them.
I try to make sure they understand why they have been referred to the service, and listen to what they think about the referral. Sometimes they’re not happy about being referred - I acknowledge that they may not be ready to talk to me about these things yet, and that’s ok.
I always point out that seeing me doesn’t mean they’re in trouble, as this is often how young people initially feel.
I show an interest in their likes and dislikes (this means I’ve learnt a lot about One Direction!) and enjoy getting to know the young people as individuals, not just categorising them as victims of sexual exploitation.
It varies, but it can take a really long time. I’m pleased that most of the young people I support seem to trust me, but of course this doesn’t mean they will feel able to disclose an experience that has so much guilt and shame attached to it.
What young people consistently feedback is that they appreciate having someone to talk to who isn’t in a position of authority or someone they have to see, like a social worker or teacher.
They enjoy having time to talk, knowing that they won’t be judged or told off.
As our recently launched joint research shows, children with disabilities are more vulnerable to child sexual exploitation (CSE).
A huge issue is social isolation. The links between this and the young people’s experiences of sexual exploitation are often really clear.
Some of the young people I work with, especially those who experience online exploitation, tell me about how much harder it is to speak to people in the real world than it is online. They’re proud of how many contacts they have on the internet, without really understanding who they are and what the risks might be.
They often don’t doubt the true identity of their online ‘friends’, accepting that the pictures they see are real, when in fact the photos could come from anywhere.
For young people who have had negative social experiences in the real world, who lack friendships and have been bullied, to have someone online who’s regularly giving them attention and making them feel good about themselves is really powerful. You can see how they would be more vulnerable to exploitation. If we’re not addressing the social isolation of many young people with learning disabilities, we’re not addressing something that is a key vulnerability factor in their sexual exploitation.
There are many goals! These include; helping them (and other professionals) understand that what happened isn’t their fault, increasing their social and support networks to improve their protection from harm in the future, increasing their understanding of what a respectful relationship feels like, as well as recognising grooming and sexual exploitation and what to do if they feel themselves or anyone else is at risk.
There is often a lot of focus on the victim’s behaviour in sexual exploitation cases. In all of our CSE services, we always emphasise that the problem is with the exploiter and it is the family and professional network’s responsibility to protect the young person. I’ve found this can be much more challenging when the young person is over 18, and their support network shrinks.
There is a real lack of learning-disability-friendly resources available for CSE practitioners to use in direct work with young people. Visual activities, such as videos, are a crucial tool to both engage young people and reinforce their learning about complex subjects, such as consent.
Many of the young people I work with have parents with learning disabilities and/or other vulnerabilities. It would be great to see more support available for them, too.