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Exploring the relationship between neglect and child sexual exploitation: Evidence Scope 1

Although any young person could become a victim of sexual exploitation, some young people may be more vulnerable to the risk of CSE in part as a result of their current or earlier adverse life experiences (Berelowitz et al, 2012; Pittenger, Huit and Hansen, 2016).

This scope focuses on the ways in which experience of neglect may heighten vulnerability to CSE. Why explore the role of neglect in particular? Firstly, it is found to be the most prevalent form of child maltreatment (Radford et al, 2011), so there is a particular urgency in understanding its repercussions and potential impact on later victimisation – understanding and tackling any vulnerability neglect may create has the potential to exert a large impact across society.

Secondly, attention has traditionally been focused on the link between child sexual abuse and later sexual exploitation (see for example, Pittenger, Huit and Hansen, 2016), meaning that the relationships between other forms of child maltreatment and CSE have been less widely understood. Despite it being the most prevalent form of child maltreatment, the study of neglect has itself been neglected (eg, Stoltenborgh, Bakermans-Kranenburg and van IJzendoorn, 2013).

There are a variety of plausible ways in which neglect might interact with and contribute to vulnerability to CSE and, so far, these have not received adequate attention, despite their potentially significant implications for preventing the occurrence and impact of child maltreatment. This scope is therefore intended to stimulate research and reflective practice, and so help shift this state of play.

This scope has sought to avoid presenting a picture that contributes to mother or family-blaming for CSE, which is a danger when focusing on neglect in childhood and its potential relationship with subsequent CSE. Other risks of focusing on this area include deflecting attention away from much-needed action around perpetrator behaviour, and the inappropriate generalisation of interventions (for example, where treatments aim to tackle vulnerabilities which are only relevant to some young people).

Focusing on neglect and how it might affect vulnerability to CSE is not to downplay the other significant factors at play, such as the behaviour of perpetrators (with whom the responsibility clearly lies), and wide systemic factors such as cultural values and poverty. Rather, this scope focuses on this potential relationship as it is here that practitioners and services in the children’s sector can exert most influence.

Of course, efforts at preventing and tackling sexual exploitation must clearly involve a focus on perpetrators; it is perpetrators who take advantage of the vulnerabilities in order to abuse. However, a better understanding of what might exacerbate vulnerability in young people is crucial for informing prevention and early intervention efforts. Such an understanding might highlight particular groups of children in need of support who might not otherwise qualify for help. There may also be factors that not only increase the risk, and vulnerability to CSE, but also the risk of a young person becoming entrenched within it or experiencing worse impact – such an understanding will inform both efforts at prevention and interventions that seek to address the impact of CSE.

This scope is one of three linked evidence scopes commissioned by Action for Children and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) with Research in Practice. Scope 2 considers the potential relationship between neglect and intra-familial child sexual abuse (IFCSA) (Allnock, 2016); Scope 3 considers the potential relationship between neglect and children and young people developing harmful sexual behaviours (HSB) (Hackett, 2016).

This scope explores the following questions:

Does neglect (in infancy, adolescence, or throughout childhood) contribute to a vulnerability to subsequent CSE?

  • Does neglect in adolescence create or contribute to a vulnerability to concurrent CSE? And does experience of CSE itself contribute to vulnerability to neglect?
  • If neglect does contribute to a vulnerability to CSE, which factors (psychological, social, behavioural, material, systemic) might explain this relationship? In other words, what might be the underlying reasons for any relationship between neglect and CSE (including, potentially, the actions of statutory systems).
  • Are there factors that increase or reduce the strength of any relationship between neglect and CSE? (this brings into discussion issues of resilience).
  • What are the implications for practice, policy and further research?

This scope does not explore how childhood neglect could contribute to becoming a perpetrator of CSE, although some of the findings discussed may be of relevance to considering such a relationship. Scope 3 also offers some relevant messages in this respect.

In answering these questions, the scope explores both areas of relative consensus and ideas that are more speculative – there are some questions that can be relatively conclusively answered on the basis of current research, and many others which cannot be, but for which the research provides clues and invites hypotheses to guide future research and practice.