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‘Time to listen’− a joined up response to child sexual exploitation and missing children

Tackling child sexual exploitation can be done. The five joint targeted area inspections (JTAIs) have found evidence of progress being made in many local areas, which is resulting in better support for children at risk of, or subject to, child sexual exploitation.

There is, however, no room for complacency. More can be done to ensure that all children and young people receive consistently good support from all agencies and in all areas. Poor practice by some professionals and some key agencies means that some children at risk of exploitation still do not get the response they need quickly enough.

Responding effectively to child sexual exploitation requires all partners to take responsibility for their own work and to work collaboratively with each other. Political will and determination to drive improvements are in place and significant investment has been made in the development of services to tackle child sexual exploitation in spite of the climate of reduction in funding for some key agencies. All five areas inspected had strategies and plans in place to tackle child sexual exploitation but the impact of plans and strategic leadership in influencing frontline practice was too variable. It is crucial that local areas translate this strategic commitment into effective frontline practice.

Where strategies and plans were effective, agencies were clear about their responsibilities, senior, middle and front-line managers oversaw and implemented plans, and staff had the skills, knowledge and training to recognise and respond to child sexual exploitation.

Prevention and raising awareness in local communities was seen to be a real strength. This was most effective when the work was informed by a good understanding of the local risks and patterns of offending and young people were involved in developing prevention and awareness resources.

In the majority of cases, professionals worked collaboratively to engage and work with children and families affected by child sexual exploitation. Engagement with young people was good where professionals carefully planned their work together, were persistent and skilled in engaging with young people and understood their specific needs and strengths, as well as the impact of abuse and trauma.

Young people have spoken of the importance of building a relationship with a professional and feeling that they are involved in decisions and are respected.

This approach is not evident in all cases. Some children had too many professionals involved with them and a lack of coordination, together with assessments that did not always consider all of the child’s needs, meant that support for children was not meaningful to them or meeting all their needs. In a small number of cases, we saw that professionals had poor understanding of child sexual exploitation. This was evident through their inappropriate use of language and affected their ability to engage with children effectively. Of particular concern are the findings that frontline health professionals do not all have the skills needed to identify child sexual exploitation and not all children have easy access to sexual health services. In some instances, even when health professionals are provided with the tools and checklists to identify sexual exploitation, they do not always use them.

In most cases reviewed, police responses were effective, and in some instances, impressive. However, there were a small number of cases where there were significant delays in police responding to children who had reported child sexual exploitation. All children deserve the kind of responses we have seen in some areas, where responses from the police are timely and focused on the needs of the victim and where professional skill and diligence results in the conviction or disruption of perpetrators and good support for victims.

A key element of effective joint working to address child sexual exploitation is an effective child protection system. We identified significant weaknesses in child protection work in one local area that had not been identified and addressed by managers in children’s social care. Without robust management oversight within agencies and across partners, it is difficult to implement an effective multi-agency response to child sexual exploitation.Responses to children missing require further development in most areas visited.