In 2016, a partnership which included the CQC, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, Ofsted and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation published a report titled “Time to listen – a joined up response to child sexual exploitation and missing children”; a detailed look at the situation of child sexual exploitation within the UK. As a follow-up to that report, the partnership carried out a series of inspections in early 2018 with the purpose to examine “the multi-agency response to child exploitation and children missing from home, care or education”. These inspections were instigated as part of a review process for practice within children’s social care, education, health services, the police, youth offending services and probation services. The results of these investigations have been collated into a follow-up addendum to the 2016 report: “Protecting Children from Criminal Exploitation, human trafficking and modern slavery: an addendum”.
There’s no denying this isn’t the easiest of subject matters, and with that comes a lot of specialist and complex terminology, but stay with us on this, it’s important material to understand. If you’d like to find out more, the full report can be found here.
Throughout this report, and thus by association this editorial, the Home Office defines child criminal exploitation as: “where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, control, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18. The victim may have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears consensual. Child Criminal Exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology.” There are variations of the specifics of child exploitation, but the core principle is that a child (someone under 18) is taken advantage of and acts in a way that negatively affects them or others. County lines on the other hand, looks at “modern slavery, human trafficking and exploitation, alongside drug supply and violent crime”. It’s “highly lucrative”, earning some who run county lines thousands of pounds a day. We’re not talking small amounts here for the adults in charge, but the cost is all the children who are put at high risk as they do the transporting and selling throughout the drug supply channel.
The crux of the matter is that child sexual exploitation is a problem that has people trying to fix it, but that their current approach needs some work. As they put it “agencies [need] to learn the lessons of the past in responding to criminal exploitation for children and county lines”. Children are vulnerable to exploitation and we need to make sure that we all work in the best way to protect them from the new risks that appear. So, this 20-page addendum (and the programme of ‘joint targeted area inspections’ it covers) hopes to understand the current situation of multi-agency responses to child exploitation. While the sector does work tirelessly to protect children as best as we can, some agencies were found to be identifying risks too slowly which means the child is already far into an exploitative situation before agencies intervene. And in the case of child exploitation, this simply can’t happen. The report also covers positive stories, case studies where agencies are seen to respond quickly and effectively, but a large proportion focuses on where there is room for improvement.
By looking into a series of case studies across Greenwich, Southend-On-Sea and Dorset – where some children are forced to carry the drugs in a way that’s physically harmful and potentially lethal to them – the investigative partnership found that there’s no distinction between different groups who are vulnerable or not to exploitation, all children are at risk. A key factor that is slowing down the response is the fact that some agencies aren’t sharing their information and “intelligence” to help identify and act upon the risks that children are facing. Agencies should also be more aware of successful cases and methods so that they can implement them, to improve the overall practice.
The report highlights an occasional misconception, that it is only the most vulnerable children who are seen as susceptible to the influencers of exploiters. This needs to be corrected universally. It needs to be understood that any child could find themselves in this type of situation. Due to the dynamic nature of county lines action, new groups of children are being targeted, such as “affluent children in public schools” or those who are particularly vulnerable because of special educational needs, poor mental health or other similar factors. Older children are also not as risk-free as one would assume, since those who are neglected or less likely to be reported are becoming strong targets for gangs or drug operations who work across county lines. There’s no one background, family set-up or personal life that means a child will be exploited; the threat is always there.
A key theme of the report is collaboration. Parents and children need to work with agencies and practitioners to understand the signs and how to spot them. And there needs to be a multi-agency coordinated approach in order to respond to the transient and fluid nature of county lines exploitation. Inefficiency and ineffectiveness comes from the mindset of “this does not happen in our area” or that working in partnership with another agency is a sign that you don’t know what you’re doing. The case studies (or JTAIs) shows that not every area has the capacity for the in-depth work needed in situations like these. That doesn’t mean that one local practice is worse or better than another, but simply that sharing knowledge is the way forward. By working together “strategically”, agencies can better track the geographical profile of criminal activities and identify whether there are patterns to successful child protection which could work in different regions. Collaboration brings new perspectives and specialist knowledge, which would open up the routes for better training for professionals – thereby improving the process for the future.
This is obviously a very brief look at a detailed and informative document on a very complex and difficult topic, but we wanted to introduce you to some of the core messages from this new report. It’s no secret that working to prevent child criminal exploitation and sexual exploitation is a gargantuan challenge; but through studies like this one and analytical reports from multiple agencies, we learn about new and better ways to go about it. This addendum has not given us the magic solution to fix all, but it does show in an evidence-based way, that we need to be watching out for every child, and we need to be doing it together.
If you suspect a child and/or young person is involved in CSE/county lines and don’t know what signs to look out for, here’s a few suggestions of indicators to be aware of. While these aren’t an extensive or exhaustive list of all signs, it’s a good place to start if you have concerns about a child or young person you know.
- Returning home late, staying out all night or going missing
- Being found in areas away from home
- Increasing drug use, or being found to have large amounts of drugs on them
- Being secretive about who they are talking to and where they are going
- Unexplained absences from school, college, training or work
- Unexplained money, phone(s), clothes or jewellery
- Increasingly disruptive or aggressive behaviour
- Using sexual, drug-related or violent language you wouldn’t expect them to know
- Coming home with injuries or looking particularly dishevelled
- Having hotel cards or keys to unknown places.
This flowchart is a great way to visualise the process of what should happen when you raise a concern about a child and/or young person potentially being a victim of criminal exploitation.