Child Sexual Exploitation – We Need To Think Differently To Protect Children

16th March 2020

Working In Child Protection

I’ve worked with victims of child sexual exploitation for over 18 years now, it’s a challenging job, but one that comes with the great reward of making a positive impact in children’s lives. One of the greatest frustrations with my role, is seeing the same mistakes made by professionals working with victims of child sexual exploitation.

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How We Need To Change To Better Our Approach CSE

CSE is an extremely complex and sensitive issue, and child protection and education professionals are working within tight resources of time and budget. But, nothing should stand in the way of keeping children and young people safe from harm. We need to conquer our unconscious biases, as well as address and challenge victim blaming languages and negative behaviours, to ensure we’re doing we all we can to safeguard the most vulnerable people in our society.


Harmful Labels & Inefficient Screening Frameworks

Inefficient screening frameworks (often developed by people with limited experience working directly with children) sometimes unfairly push children into labels that are harmful. They reduce a child’s situation to a single category and the child can become a ‘tick’ on a piece of paper. This leads to a lack of understanding of the incredibly complex issues facing that child.

For example, if a child has gone missing because they’ve missed the bus home and there are no other vulnerability factors, apart from one missing episode, a screening tool would assess that child as low risk of exploitation. Why, where is the risk? On the flip side of this, to be considered to have a high risk of exploitation on a screening framework, some form of abuse must already be occurring.

How can a child be considered a ‘high risk’ to exploitation when they are already being abused (sexually, emotionally or physically), groomed, trafficked and under the most awful and serious levels of threat and fear? And, when will we learn to intervene before a child’s situation becomes this serious?

How Do We Tackle CSE In The UK?

Are we tackling this appropriately and with enough passion in the UK? In my opinion, no. We are fortunate to work with some wonderful proactive local authorities who understand the issue with passion and by understanding the need for a different outlook.

Why do we unfairly tell a child to keep themselves safe from abuse? People deliver “keep safe” school sessions educating children on how to protect themselves. Yes education is needed, but not badged like that.

Book Onto This Free CSE Webinar - 18th March at 3:45pm.

Unconsciously, We Put The Fault On The Child

How can we tell a child they need to keep themselves safe from someone who will manipulate, coerce and trauma bond the child to them through fear and violence? This can cause the child to feel it is their fault that they were groomed. This is catastrophic for a child who has been sexually abused and potentially passed around gang members.

“Why didn’t I protect myself?”

“I should have stayed safe.”

“It’s all my fault.”

And we wonder why rape convictions in London are at the lowest ever at 3%![1]

Child crying

Practical Steps To Improve Our Approach To CSE

We have the opportunity to turn this on its head, to think differently, to think wider. We can prevent harm, intervene earlier and disrupt abusers.

Police and social workers cannot do this alone. Educate your schools, towns and your communities to the threat of abusers and inform them on how to identify risks so that groomers aren’t able to operate. Connect your friends, family and colleagues to this subject. Keeping children safe is everyone’s responsibility. We all have a moral, legal and social responsibility to look out for our children. The more we talk about it, the more we will be equipped to spot risks and respond effectively.

Book Onto This Free CSE Webinar - 18th March at 3:45pm.

Information Sharing To Disrupt Abusers

I believe the best thing we can do protect children and young people is disrupt abusers and groomers. To do this, we need information and intelligence from people who suspect something is going on. We need to be sharing this information, not just sitting on it.

Our police colleagues can’t face this alone. They need us to create teams around each child, this way we are more likely to spot small changes and report risks much sooner. We also need quick and accurate reporting systems which facilitate the secure sharing of information with trusted external partners (such as police of social care).

Make sure all of your Child Exploitation meetings have a disruption focus, make sure that we are building plans around children that focus on minimising risk to them. Let’s look at things differently. Remember, a child is only high risk because there is an abuser connected to them!

Wider Training For CSE

Engage your wider workforce, your community. Last week I trained some wider workforce colleagues and a carpet fitter had a wealth of evidence about a location. He described seeing children coming and going from a premise where they were being violently forced to traffic drugs. If we hadn’t trained him, would he have known what to do?

Girl worried on phone

In Summary:

“In order to be successful in preventing child sexual abuse from happening, and protecting children who experience abuse, we must develop a better understanding of offending.”

My frustration grows when we keep scoring children as how at risk they are. The only reason they are “high risk” is because there is an abuser. Support the victims, definitely. But how can we say “has the risk reduced” to the child when the exploiter is still walking the streets?

Book Onto This Free CSE Webinar - 18th March at 3:45pm.

Written by Helen Matthews, Co-Founder of CYP First