What we told MPs about how to tackle grooming in a local area
Horrific cases of child sexual exploitation uncovered recently in Rochdale, Rotherham, Oxford, Torbay and elsewhere have spurred those responsible for protecting children to ask why these vulnerable children were not kept safe.
In response, the Home Affairs Select Committee has held a parliamentary inquiry into localised grooming of children for sexual exploitation. Martine Osmond, Senior Practitioner from our CheckPoint project in Torbay, was asked by the committee to share her knowledge of how young runaways and children at risk of sexual exploitation can be better identified, protected and supported. (You can watch or read Martine's testimony on the parliament website.)
It is never 'a child’s choice' to be exploited
Children who are targeted and groomed for sexual exploitation are some of the most vulnerable in our society. Many are in the care system because of neglect and abuse, family breakdown or conflict or have run away from home because of domestic violence and parental drug or alcohol abuse. They are vulnerable and seek love and affection. Some adults exploit these vulnerabilities.
As Martine explained to the committee, our practitioners find that when sexually exploited children disclose their abuse to professionals, they are often not believed. Or worse, they can be seen by these professionals, whose job it is to protect these children, as making 'their own choice'. When a practitioner labels a young person as 'promiscuous' or 'streetwise', it only makes it more difficult to prevent and disrupt sexual exploitation.
Martine told the inquiry that these attitudes are due to a lack of understanding of the nature of child sexual exploitation and the signs that a young person is being exploited. Some professionals take what young people say at face value. Yet victims of sexual exploitation often do not recognise that they are being exploited, or perceive their abuser to be a 'boyfriend' or 'girlfriend'. Professionals need to understand that this is not consensual sexual behaviour – rather these children are victims of sexual abuse.
Martine told MPs of the need for a radical change in attitudes among all frontline professionals. She explained that the training courses that our projects deliver to the police and social services can help achieve this change.
Missing signs of localised grooming
Going missing or running away is a key indicator that a young person is being exploited and groomed. A recent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups found that 70% of children who were sexually exploited also went missing.
In Torbay, when agencies started looking at children going missing this triggered a large police investigation into a child grooming ring. The full scale of the abuse was uncovered only when all of the area’s agencies – social services, health, police and the voluntary sector – met and discovered that the children who were going missing all went to the same place.
Agencies in Torbay found that good data collection and analysis of young people going missing and running away – including the frequency and where children run to – helps identify homes, parks or other locations that may be targeted by perpetrators. This intelligence is crucial to preventing and tackling child sexual exploitation, as well successfully prosecuting the perpetrators.
The importance of return interviews
Martine also told the committee that a critical element in tackling grooming in a local area is the return interview delivered by an independent professional with young people after they have gone missing.
A return interview offers the child an opportunity to talk about what has really happened and to disclose information about any abuse they have suffered. Because this is very sensitive, it is vital that the person who does the interview is an independent professional that the young person trusts.
We are calling on the Home Affairs Select Committee to make a recommendation to the government to include a requirement for local authorities to provide return interviews to all children who run away or go missing from home or care in its forthcoming statutory guidance on children who run away or go missing from home and care.