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The use of tools and checklists to assess risk of child sexual exploitation: An exploratory study

In a recent research study (Brown et al, 2016), we identified many issues with the tools and checklists used throughout England and Wales to identify young people at risk of child sexual exploitation (CSE): in particular, that risk indicators varied considerably across the large number of tools being used. We raised serious concerns that some indicators were actual signs of sexual abuse and exploitation rather than risk of abuse. The threshold for being identified as a potential victim was very high in some tools, resulting in differences in practice and responses across local authorities and agencies.

The current study builds directly on that previous study, exploring the use of screening and risk assessment tools relating to CSE in England and Wales with professional groups who currently use such tools.

Professionals working in this area are very keen to improve practice and the tools they use, and to do this quickly. This project aimed to identify how and when the current tools and checklists are being used, and provide research evidence, in order to make recommendations for the development of tools/checklists and practice.

Method

An online survey was completed by 42 professionals, and a further 17 professionals were interviewed. The professionals worked in a range of agencies and services, with the central focus of the majority being child protection and safeguarding. Participants shared the tools and checklists that they used with the research team. The data were analysed using thematic analysis.

Key findings

• A wide range of tools and checklists are being used across England – with one tool, the Sexual Exploitation Risk Assessment Framework (SERAF), used throughout Wales. (A separate review of the SERAF in Wales was taking place at the time of this study. It will be an important complement to this study, and provide a specific view of the Welsh context.)

• The data gathered from 42 online survey participants identified at least 19 different screening or assessment tools.

• There is variation in practice as to who completes the tools, the processes around their completion, and actions that result from the conclusions/risk categorisations obtained through their use. Some practitioners have undertaken training and are in specific CSE-related roles; others are less familiar and may encounter CSE less frequently. This results in young people being assessed differently in different geographical areas and by different services.

• There is sometimes confusion as to whether screening or risk assessment is being carried out, with debate amongst professionals as to whether one tool for both these purposes is required, or different tools for different purposes.

• Screening tools can ‘screen out’ some young people inappropriately if completed by one professional or single agency with limited information about the young person; other professionals may have information that might show an increased risk if all the information is pooled as part of the screening process.There is general support for the use of tools/checklists to guide practice in assessing whether young people are at risk of CSE, although there were differences in opinion between preferences for a single national tool or a range of tools tailored to localities and different professional needs.

• There is a conflation of risk and actual harm in the screening tools and checklists, and a variety of definitions of high, medium and low risk – with potentially serious consequences for the safeguarding of children and young people. Indicators included in tools and checklists and the method of overall assessment vary widely across each tool/ checklist, service/organisation and service area.

• Meeting a threshold that triggers support from Children’s Services is not always achievable: some participants stated that the tools appeared to be used to assign resources rather than identify vulnerabilities.

• Some tools do not allow or encourage the inclusion of narrative information to explain indicators, risk and protective factors – yet the information contained in such narratives is important in enabling professionals to understand the nature of the risk and protective indicators.

• Scored tools are especially problematic, and tension can arise when scores differ between professionals/agencies, or do not indicate a level of response that some professionals feel is most appropriate.

• Existing tools are generally less appropriate for boys, younger children and disabled children, as they do not include risk indicators or vulnerabilities relevant to these populations.

• Some potential indicators of risk are often not included, e.g. online/social media communication, gaming, drug and/or gang involvement, deprivation/poverty, disability, and sexual interests and attitudes.

• There is little emphasis on protective factors or strengths of young people, their families and the immediate environment, and the potential to blame victims by narrowly linking experiences of victimisation to behaviours.

• There is a lack of situational, environmental and perpetrator/potential perpetrator factors in the tools/checklists.

• Some professionals stated that there is too strong a focus on young people who are potential victims and working with them to reduce their risk. Although a great deal of work is done to identify risk profile, high-risk areas and individuals as potential perpetrators, this is often carried out by different teams and different services, so it can appear that much of the work to prevent CSE places the emphasis on potential victims.

• Although the inclusion of young people and their families in assessing risk of CSE is generally supported, this does not always happen or is not appropriately managed and prepared for. Involving young people in thinking through adults’ concerns regarding exploitation could lead to more meaningful engagement. Increased discussion of the push and pull factors around CSE would help to ensure that this was addressed.

• The question of whether special CSE procedures are actually needed, or whether this should form part of generic child protection (because CSE is a form of child sexual abuse), was raised, leading to questions on whether separate tools are needed for CSE, or a more general risk indicators tool, and/or whether there should be a more general response to children and young people in need of support.

Gaps in research knowledge

• There is limited research evidence on which to identify the indicators (risk and protective factors) that should be included in the tools.

• Although professional judgement was generally favoured, and a number of limitations and difficulties were identified with the use of ‘scored’ tools, no research has been conducted, and expertise in the broader forensic risk assessment research/practitioner knowledge and experience has not been used to assess or evaluate the best approach(es) to use in identifying potential victims.

Implications and recommendations

These findings raise a number of implications for practice, but it is important to note that there are no simple solutions and ‘quick fixes’ in relation to this work, not least because there is a lack of research evidence on which to draw in order to develop evidence-based tools. A number of recommendations are listed in the report; here we list seven guiding principles, derived from our findings, that should be considered in the development and use of tools/checklists.

1. The purpose and use of any tool/checklist or assessment should be clear to all professionals involved in the process (including those developing it) – for example, is the tool/checklist designed/used to screen a large number of individuals and identify those most at risk, or to complete a comprehensive assessment? Tools should be used for the purposes for which they have been developed.

2. Tools/checklists designed to assess potential risk of harm should not include actual indicators of harm; if it is likely that indicators of harm will be identified in assessments using the tool, then separating actual indicators of harm from risk and protective indicators would enable the clearer identification of victims from potential victims, and enable the most appropriate responses to follow the assessments.

3. Professional judgement should be encouraged, not only in the tools/checklists and associated guidance/training, but also in the processes and procedures in which the tools/checklists are embedded.

4. Narrative information should be collected, so that all professionals involved in assessment or later processes can be clear about the nature of the risk and protective indicators identified.

5. A focus on assessing an individual’s risk of CSE can lead to victim-blaming, particularly where risks are narrowly linked to individual behaviours. Apart from having serious negative impacts on children, victim-blaming undermines good practice around CSE as it obscures important contextual factors and the role of perpetrators in manipulation and abuse. Assessment work with potential victims, victims and their families should be collaborative and supportive. Where risks are identified, the responsibility for preventing CSE should not be placed on potential victims and their families.6. Scoring should be avoided, but lists of potential indicators (risk and protective) can be helpful, particularly for professionals who have less knowledge and training in relation to CSE and/or are newly qualified, and to encourage consistency in the indicators used in decision-making. The structured professional judgement approach developed to assess the risk of offenders is an example of how indicators can be used in combination with professional judgement.

7. Support, guidance and training is required not only in respect of the completion of tools and checklists, but also in relation to using these tools to support and underpin decision-making and best practice in order to prevent CSE. Consideration should be given to meeting the needs of, and supporting, newly qualified professionals and those with limited CSE training/knowledge. This is relevant to some groups of professionals, e.g. GPs, health workers and some social workers.