Engage: Safe people, safe places – Working with care experienced children at risk of exploitation

Emma Lewis is a member of the Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. In this blog she talks about her work with the Roots Foundation Wales, the risks and devastating impact of exploitation on young people, and the importance of ensuring they feel heard.

As I write this, another young person in care is missing. In fact statistically speaking, there are a large number of children missing in the UK at any one time, but this particular young person is known to us and our charity. Immediately we feel anxious, a sickening feeling swells in the pits of our stomachs and we retrace our steps, thinking of the time spent with that young person.  Did they say something we may have missed? Did they do something that was out of character during the one-to-one session? Did they give us cause for concern? The answer is, generally, no. So what went wrong?

The Roots Foundation Wales has a dedicated, high level intervention project that works with care experienced children who are at risk of becoming, or are a victim of child exploitation. The CARE (Children at Risk of Exploitation) project is in its sixth year of funding, and we continue to reach shocking numbers of children who are considered extremely vulnerable and susceptible to exploitation in its many forms. And tragically, that’s not surprising.

Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. As we heard during the Inquiry’s Child Sexual Exploitation by Organised Networks (CSEN) public hearing, cases of child sexual exploitation (CSE) are under-reported but it is very difficult to accurately measure the true scale. Research suggests many thousands of children are harmed each year and as of February 2020, there were over 90 police investigations into group-based child sexual exploitation in operation.

Sadly, as time goes on and the number of care experienced young people go missing increases, I cry less and less. Initially the hot angry tears would roll down my cheeks and there was an instant urge to go out and look for them. I felt frantic, anxious and uneasy. Uneasy because I was aware of what the grim possibilities were; I knew the horror and the sickening things that were expected of these young people and I felt helpless.

I wanted to scream at the social workers, at the police and at the safeguarding officers. I wanted to know why they weren’t as angry and as frantic as I was to find these young people, and then one day I realised why. I asked one of the professionals involved in a case and they simply said, “It’s because the perpetrators are always one step ahead of us, no matter how fast we work”, and then I understood.

The process of exploiting children is generally a very slow process, like a trickle, a drip-by-drip approach. There is no big bang or a huge flashing neon sign with an arrow.

It’s calculated, determined and generally goes unnoticed silently, deadly and all consumingly.

The exploitation network often will have many perpetrators involved, all having their own role to play. They will try to gain the trust of the young person, befriending them and diminishing any support network that once surrounded that individual. Offering gifts, a place to stay, a friendly ear when things are tough at home.

Whilst having an awareness of the signs of exploitation does help, knowing what goes on does change you. On a tough day working on the CARE project, it’s hard to go out into the world and see people getting on with their day-to-day lives without a clue what’s going on in their own towns and cities, and even their own streets, not knowing the true horrors that lurk behind the corners and doors. We don’t want to think it can happen to us, to our children and to our families but the sad and tragic fact is that it can happen to anyone’s child.

As a charity, our aim is to re-establish the significant and positive support networks surrounding that young person, to ensure they have access to safe people and safe places and that they can identify negative behaviours of others around them. We support foster carers and kinship carers, providing training to help identify the potential signs of child exploitation. This includes change in appearance, change in friends, change in behaviours, possessions, coping mechanisms, but most importantly, we emphasise their role in ensuring that young people are listened to and the importance of their role both as a carer, and as a significant adult in the young person’s life.

From my own experience of working with young people, their life is never the same after being sexually exploited. They appear to grow up overnight, their eyes hold a hollowness that doesn’t leave for weeks, months or even years, and a smile is hard to find. Words seem stuck in their throat. They cannot find the words to even begin to explain the nightmare environments they have been forced into.  They don’t even know that they can trust you, as their trust in others has been destroyed.  However there is hope. We need to care and have patience. We also need to understand the importance of being consistent in that young person’s life; be the safe person, be the safe place.

Victims and survivors who would like to share their experience of child sexual abuse can do so through the Inquiry’s Truth Project, which is due to close in October 2021. Experiences can be shared over the phone, via video call or in writing. More information can be found on the Truth Project website.

About the Author

Emma Lewis (pictured) is a member of the Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.