young girl who has run away stands as people rush by her

Every year we support hundreds of children who are victims or at risk of child sexual exploitation. 

Sadly, their experiences echo many of the points made in the home Affairs Select Committee’s report on child sexual exploitation and localised grooming published yesterday. 

Challenging professional attitudes 

Child sexual exploitation is a horrendous crime. The details of recent child exploitation cases in Oxford, Torbay, Rochdale and Rotherham are truly shocking. 

Yet the committee's report paints a disturbing picture of professional attitudes that allow sexual exploitation to go unchallenged. These attitudes range from indifference and a lack of curiosity to perceptions that the victims of sexual exploitation are ‘willing participants’ and ‘asking for it’. 

This list could continue with examples of attitudes presented in the parliamentary inquiry on children missing from care, which we supported last year.

The panel heard of professionals perceiving extremely vulnerable young people in need of support as 'troublesome', 'promiscuous', 'criminals' or even 'slags who knew what they were getting themselves into'. Naturally, these kinds of attitudes only make it more difficult for victims of child sexual exploitation to talk about their experiences to professional agencies. 

Proactively identifying victims

The current system relies heavily on victims coming forward and disclosing abuse. While some children and young people may not feel like they can disclose abuse because of negative attitudes, others under the influence of predatory individuals do not even recognise their relationships as exploitative and abusive.  

That’s is why we believe that all local agencies supporting children, including voluntary sector organisations, need to work better together and do more to proactively identify vulnerable children to prevent and disrupt sexual exploitation. 

We are pleased that the committee supports this call as well as calls for shift in attitudes towards child victims of sexual exploitation. 

Responding to signs of trouble

From our direct work with children who run away we know that running away is a cry for help. It is also a key indicator that a child is vulnerable to sexual exploitation. 

Yet very often that cry for help is not answered by professionals and there is a real postcode lottery of services available to children who run away and go missing. Far too many children do not get the help they need until their lives reach a crisis point.

Return interviews offer an opportunity for children to talk about their experiences and to figure out solutions to the problems that make them run away. Importantly, they are also an effective way to help disrupt sexual exploitation and build evidence to prosecute perpetrators, as we shared in our evidence to the committee.

Despite the statutory guidance on children missing from home and care stating that all children that go missing should be offered an independent return interview, 74 of 152 local authorities could not provide figures for the number of return interviews they carried out

Therefore, we strongly welcome the committee’s recommendation that the forthcoming updated statutory guidance on children who run away or go missing should require local authorities to conduct return interviews, delivered by an independent professional a child or young person is comfortable speaking with, to all children who run away or go missing.  

Maintaining the commitment

In recent years the government has taken many important steps to start reforming the support and response available to these vulnerable children. Examples of this include the recently announced changes aimed at improving the quality of residential care and data sharing about missing children, as well as the government’s Child Sexual Exploitation Action plan and the Missing Children and Adults Strategy.   

Yet, as the committee’s report states, a lot more still needs to be done to ensure that child victims of sexual exploitation receive support they need. 

There is also urgency about things that need to be done. The committee poignantly states that ‘children have only one chance at childhood’. 

We agree. Children who are being groomed or sexually exploited need decision makers and professionals at all levels of government to act now to challenge and prevent child sexual exploitation.   

We call on the government to implement the recommendations of this report without delay.

By Iryna Pona - Policy Adviser
Iryna Pona
- Policy team

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