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Working Effectively to Address Child Sexual Exploitation: An evidence scope

Produced by Research in Practice as part of the Greater Manchester CSE project, funded by the Department for Education Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme

This scope aims to support local areas in the continual development of child sexual exploitation (CSE) services by reviewing and critically appraising relevant evidence. The scope proposes six key principles for effective service design (see Section 9). Whilst this scope focusses on practice with children, it is the identification, early intervention, investigation, prevention, prosecution and monitoring of child sex offenders that will ultimately protect children. Professionals working in legal services, policing and the criminal justice system all have a critical role in reducing the abuse of children in society. The intervention and prosecution of sex perpetrators is, however, outside of the remit of this evidence scope. For those keen to explore these issues, there is an established body of empirical research, theories and practice evaluations focusing on child sex offenders and abusers in forensic psychology and criminology; in addition to practice guidance and advice for police, custodial services, probation and the wider network of practitioners.

Protecting children and young people from sexual exploitation is a challenging area of practice across all sectors, including health, education, the police and third sector organisations, as well as social care and social work. It is a sensitive phenomenon around which there is still uncertainty about how to respond, in part due to its complexity.

Although CSE may be a complex area, what is not in question is who causes CSE. The blame lies clearly with the perpetrators who exploit young people and cause them harm; this is irrespective of the behaviour or circumstances of the victim. This scope explores many factors that focus on young people, but this should not detract in any way from the fact that responsibility for the abuse lies with the perpetrator. Discussions within this scope actively challenge assumptions, practice and language that may contribute to victim blaming of children affected by CSE.

Throughout the scope we use the terms ‘young person’ and ‘young people’ as well as ‘children’. Whilst it is vital to recognise that all persons under 18 years old are children, this scope presents a synthesis of findings and issues from different fields and these tend to adopt different language. In CSE, a great deal of the literature and practice focuses on older children, as this group appear to be those most likely to be affected by CSE, and so often uses the term ‘young people’. The term ‘young person’ is also the preferred term used in participation (a topic which is discussed throughout this scope) and tends to be the terminology used by older children themselves. Given the imperative to challenge the notion that any child can ever bear responsibility for abuse and exploitation, using these terms interchangeably presents some difficulty, especially as the term ‘young person’ might be interpreted as conveying more agency and responsibility than the term ‘child’. However, this scope tries to convey the language used by the particular authors of each piece of evidence or research; therefore it will vary throughout.

This approach of adhering as closely as possible to the original source presents other challenges. Some research in this area has been produced in countries, or at a point in time, where terms that would now be considered inappropriate have been used (such as ‘child prostitution’ to describe child sexual abuse and exploitation). This scope takes the view that despite this uncomfortable use of language, the research findings are often valid and useful.

It is important to acknowledge that the extent of CSE in the UK is significant, and that awareness of the scale of the problem, both in the UK and internationally, has increased in recent years (Chase and Statham, 2005; OCC, 2013a). While societal awareness of CSE is increasing, the question of how best to tackle it remains a challenge, not only for social work professionals but for all practitioners across the children and young people’s workforce also.

Social workers have a statutory duty to safeguard children and young people. They are also the leads in inter-agency and interprofessional working when significant safeguarding concerns arise (HM Government, 2015a). However, tackling CSE is an issue of multi-agency responsibility. The centrality of partnership working is evident in terms of inter-agency and professional collaboration, information sharing across sectors and across geographical boundaries, and working in partnership with local communities, families and young people themselves (Laming, 2009; Munro, 2011; HM Government, 2015a).Laming (2009: 36) highlighted that in order to safeguard children and young people from harm, relationships between practitioners are crucial:

It’s not about structures, it’s about making it work out there for children.

Too often, agencies co-operate and share information with social services out of ‘good will’ rather than in recognition of their statutory duty. In any case, statutory duty is not enough on its own. In order to address CSE effectively, there needs to be a cultural shift. As the government’s recent paper on tackling child exploitation notes, what is required is:

… a fundamental change of attitude within professions and the public about the nature of this crime. (HM Government, 2015b)

Put simply, this is bigger than social workers.

All service providers in touch with young people and their families have a role in identifying and working with sexually exploited young people and in disrupting and prosecuting abusers (Pearce, 2014; HM Government, 2015a, 2015b; Beckett et al, 2017). Practitioners at all levels and across all agencies – as well as the wider community – must be able to recognise and respond to concerns related to the various manifestations of CSE. Clear strategies for intervention are needed, resourced at both an operational and strategic level, together with an approach that enables integrated working.

This evidence scope is, therefore, concerned with gathering evidence that supports interventions and multi-agency and interprofessional approaches to working to improve outcomes for young people who may be affected by CSE. Wherever possible, this includes a preventative and early help perspective. It draws on a range of national evidence and perspectives in order to provide a balanced overview for service design.

It was commissioned by Wigan and Rochdale councils, as part of the Greater Manchester CSE project, funded by the Department for Education Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme. It was revised by Jessica Eaton in 2017 to reflect new evidence and emerging practice wisdom.