Posted: 31 October 2014

Changing the lives of sexually exploited children

Maria, a project worker at the Safe Choices project in London tells us about her day and the life changing support she provides to children and young people who have been affected by sexual exploitation. 

A day in the life of a project worker

My day started early by sending text messages to a few of the young women to remind them of their appiontments. It's quite common for young people to not show up; sometimes they don’t feel they need the help, or that they can't trust the project worker.  On my way to my first appointment I checked my emails to make sure there had been no significant events that could change my day. 

My first appointment was with a young woman who I only met the previous week. I asked if she fancied a cup of tea, knowing that an informal approach often helps a young person feel more comfortable. 

During our meeting, she came across as being quite guarded and shy so I didn’t feel like she would pour her heart out in a first meeting; I knew I’d have to persevere to build some trust. Together we completed what project workers call an ‘Outcomes Wheel’, which is our tool to enable us and the children we support to assess different areas of their life.  

This young girl’s answers suggested that she was a happy young woman who was always safe and that life was going well. I explained we would review this as our work went on so she knew to expect another one soon. It is quite typical that a young woman’s Outcomes Wheel may appear to get 'worse' as you do the work but that’s often down to them becoming more comfortable with you, building up trust, learning about the risks and becoming aware that what they are experiencing is not okay. I knew from her referral that she had recently been raped and sexually exploited, but as she hadn’t told me herself I didn’t feel I could bring it up for our first meeting. 

It can be difficult to think how far from reality that young woman’s Wheel is from her own life, especially when all she wants to do is appear 'normal'. This can be a very important part of a child's coping mechanism but is often seen by adults as being difficult or lying. 

After 90 minutes I felt she’d had enough, so I suggested we end it and book our next session in her home so she will feel more comfortable and speak more freely. 

My next meeting 

My journey to the next meeting takes an hour and gives me the opportunity to read through some notes and prepare myself. 

My next appointment was a professionals’ meeting to discuss a young woman in care that I have been working with for a year. 

The young woman has been repeatedly sexually exploited by a group of men and there are eight professionals who meet regularly to figure out a way forward. This meeting also covers working with the police to build a case against the perpetrators. The Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service representative present has been examining the young woman, and they believe that her mental health will suffer as a result of the on-going trauma she has experienced. 

It can be distressing to consider the abuse, neglect and sexual exploitation this young woman has experienced but it is assuring that I work with a strong group of professionals who are keen to protect her and help her build a better future for herself.

Photograph © Agenda| Posed by models

Building a better future 

I had a couple of missed calls from a young women I work with, so called them back before my 45-minute journey to my next appointment, with a young woman who is living in supported housing. She has come so far since we first met. 

She had been in care since her early teens and was the only sibling to be placed away from the family, which was incredibly hard for her. She has been sexually exploited throughout her life but most recently from a group of males living nearby. When I arrived, she was already waiting for me and looked happy to see me. 

We went to a café to get a cup of tea so she could tell me her good news; she explained that her bid on a flat was accepted and I was thrilled for her as she has been working really hard towards this. She had been told she will get financial assistance to furnish the property but was concerned about how to get it. 

We contacted Leaving Care Services, who are able to offer assistance in purchasing those items and she was very relieved. She also told me that her final interview for an apprenticeship was next week and she was really hopeful. She was incredibly excited about putting her past behind her, to move into her new flat and start moving forward with her life. 

I know she will go on to achieve amazing things

It has been inspiring to be able to support her in raising her awareness of her situation, empowering her to start thinking about what she wants for her future, and to see her confidence grow over the time I have worked with her. I had to end the session after an hour and a half as I knew we could have kept talking for hours. 

It was a really positive end to the day because I know she will go on to achieve amazing things. 

I popped back into the office to prepare for my sessions tomorrow. It’s been a long day and tomorrow is a 5:30am start. This can be a very emotionally draining role at times, so I also checked in with my manager to have a proper chance to offload and reflect. When you’re rushing from one session to another, it’s easy to forget the good bits of your day.

By Maria Lazarou - Programme staff