As Keoghs currently handles the largest child sexual exploitation civil claims group in the country involving a local authority and the police, we read with interest the long-awaited IICSA report into child sexual exploitation by organised networks, which has now been published.
Child sexual exploitation is a form of sexual abuse which occurs “where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator”. The unique feature of child sexual exploitation is that children are coerced, controlled, groomed, manipulated or deceived into sexual activity. This is usually done through alcohol, drugs, actual or threatened violence, kindness and even affection. Organised networks that abuse children across the country vary, but all use children for their own financial gain.
The Inquiry chose six case study areas – Durham, Swansea, Warwickshire, St Helen’s, Tower Hamlets and Bristol. Eight themes were examined in each area:
1. Problem profiling and disruption of child sexual exploitation
The Inquiry notes the importance of not making any presumptions when it comes to profiling child exploitation, and exploitation can occur in any community. The Inquiry heard the accounts of survivors who had experienced this exploitation and abuse. The research identified various indicators of situations in which a child would be at a higher vulnerability of experiencing child exploitation, which include residential care, children who have a disability, boys and young men, children from ethnic minority groups and LGBTQ+ children.
2. Empathy and concern for child victim
The Inquiry stresses the importance of recognising the child as a victim; it is said too many are treated as offenders and it is crucial that adults show empathy. There are many examples whereby a victim has been charged with criminal offences and, subsequently, have criminal records, however, the criminal offences were carried out as a result of the exploitation. The Inquiry heard victims’ accounts of this throughout its investigation. It is noted that section 45 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 provides a statutory defence for children who carry out certain criminal offences as a consequence of their exploitation; however, no data has been collected in this regard. The Inquiry suggested this data should be collected and published. The Inquiry also found that empathy can be provided by eliminating the victim-blaming attitudes of various professionals, as well as regular audits of case files which are crucial to ensure that the language used is factually appropriate and non-judgemental. Senior leaders in the police force and local authority must take the lead on this.
3. Risk assessment, protection from harm and outcomes for children
The Inquiry found early identification of signs of child sexual exploitation is crucial: these children are likely to be in contact with frontline services such as GPs and schools who are well placed to identify any changes in a child’s behaviour which can be warning signs. The Inquiry found that the evidence on risk assessments was not satisfactory and more needs to be done in this regard.
4. Missing children
It is generally recognised that there is a link between children going missing and child sexual exploitation; a missing child can be both a cause and consequence of the child being sexually exploited. In 2018/19 there were 143,453 incidents of missing children. The NCA found that 9% of missing children had a child sexual exploitation associated with them (69% girls, and 26% boys). The Inquiry heard case studies of children who had gone missing from home and school, as this is a feature of sexual exploitation, and found that police and local authorities must take steps to prevent this happening and conduct meaningful ‘return home’ interviews when the child does return. The Department for Education statuary guidance is currently under review, but says that local authorities in England should agree a protocol for responding to children who run away or go missing, and a care plan should include details of the arrangements to be in place to minimise the risk of a child going missing.
5. Male victims
Several case studies found that boys and young men were exploited via online contact such as the dating app Grindr and other social media platforms. The ability to risk assess such platforms will prove difficult, but is necessary.
6. Children with disabilities
Research has suggested that children with disabilities in all settings are at high risk of sexual abuse/sexual violence; perpetrators tend to target children who they identify as vulnerable, which can include children with disabilities. It was found that children who are deaf or have a physical disability are considered three times more likely to experience abuse than those without a disability. The Inquiry noted there needs to be improvement in systems to increase identification of risks, and it is important for institutions and agencies to have adequate staff training and guidance in place.
7. Partnership working
Various agencies such as the police, social services, health services, education and voluntary organisations have a role in preventing child sexual exploitation. The Inquiry found that while there are resource pressures across these sectors, they need to consider whether there is more they can do.
8. Audit, review and performance improvement
The Inquiry found that public institutions should continuously evaluate their performance using different methods, and in particular should seek the views of children and families to find out their experience, case file audits and service reviews. This will actively drive improvement in child protection.
The Inquiry found that children are being sexually exploited across England and Wales. Their investigations revealed extensive failings by both local authorities and police forces. Research suggested that many complainants reported dissatisfaction with the responses, and some felt unprotected. As the resources of public sectors become more stretched, perpetrators are finding more ways of committing this abuse by the growing use of social media and dating apps which have their own difficulties in safeguarding.
1. The response of the criminal justice system needs to be strengthened; this can be done by the government amending the Sentencing Act 2020 to provide a mandatory aggravating factor in sentencing those convicted of offences relating to sexual exploitation of children.
2. The government should publish an enhanced version of its Child Exploitation Disruption Toolkit as soon as possible.
3. The Department for Education should review and publish an updated version of its guidance on child sexual exploitation. This update should specify that the core element of the definition is that a child was controlled, coerced, manipulated or deceived into sexual activity. The Welsh government should also update its guidance.
4. The Department for Education and Welsh government should ensure their updated national guidance makes clear that signs of child exploitation must never be treated as indications that a child is only “at risk” of experiencing this harm. They should distinguish between children who are at risk, who are experiencing and who have experienced sexual exploitation.
5. Police forces and local authorities in England and Wales must consistently collect specific data on all cases of known or suspected child sexual exploitation.
6. The Department for Education should ban the placement in semi-independent and independent settings of children aged 16 and 17 who have experienced, or are at risk of experiencing, sexual exploitation.
The full report can be read here.
Keoghs Comment – Child sexual exploitation is a complex and appalling crime, more often carried out by organised networks who initially befriend their victims. We welcome the Inquiry’s very detailed and thorough Report and its recommendations. We hope that it helps public sector organisations, other agencies and society generally to work together effectively to understand, prevent, identify and tackle this abhorrent crime so that victims are safeguarded and protected from exploitation and its profound and long-lasting effects.
For more information and/or advice please contact Sarah Swan.
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