IICSA (Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse) released their latest report this week, ‘Child Sexual Exploitation by Organised Networks’. Catch22, which delivers services tackling exploitation across England, gave evidence to the inquiry and here reflects on the final report.
Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is when an abuser takes sexual advantage of a child for their own personal gain. Whilst prevalent throughout the UK, it too often goes unrecognised. Exploiters are constantly evolving the ways they groom and exploit young people – whether it’s targeting places where vulnerable young people hang out or contacting a child through social media. Today’s report recognises that authorities are struggling to keep up with the evolving nature of exploitation and grooming, and that children are too often being held responsible for the exploitation that has occurred.
Catch22’s Director of Young People and Families, Kate Wareham responds:
“This report addresses the organised criminal nature of child sexual exploitation and confirms what we in the sector have been declaring for years: that too many children across the country are being failed, that victim blaming of children is extensive, and that risk factors are too often ignored.
“Across our child sexual exploitation services at Catch22, we know one third of children referred to us have already been reported missing before. By the time a young person comes into our care, we often know serious harm has already occurred so society must do better to intervene earlier. We know what approaches are working – early intervention, working together, and meaningful resource put towards every child.
“We welcome the renewed focus on the organised sexual exploitation of children in this report, and hope it helps to generate fresh energy to tackle an insidious and all too extensive issue.”
The report shows there is a clear link between going missing and child exploitation. Often going missing is the first indicator that something’s wrong, and a quarter of children were officially missing when their abuse took place.
Across Catch22’s services, we know one third of all children referred for CSE support have been reported missing. With 66,000 children reported missing every year in England and Wales, this is a key opportunity for services to act early to protect children.
Catch22 released its report on the impact of emotional wellbeing on rates of children going missing late last year which highlighted the significant benefits of Return Home Interviews and follow-up support. Early intervention not only reduces the demand on services in the long run, but most significantly, it reduces the harm and trauma suffered by children.
Children are still too often being blamed for their own exploitation- for making ‘poor choices’. The blame for exploitation lies with the offender and the offender alone. The report states that senior leaders within local authorities and police forces must take the lead on “eradicating attitudes and behaviours which suggest that children who are victims of exploitation are in some way responsible for it.” It is particularly important that all professionals involved with a child avoid stigmatising and victim-blaming language. We also know that there are too few prosecutions of adults who perpetrate sexual abuse, with systemic barriers that have been widely documented recently. Court processes can add further trauma for children and too often, they do not receive the justice they deserve.
As highlighted in Catch22’s online harms research, 97% of all our child exploitation referrals have some element of social media or online grooming. In the latest data from the Internet Watch Foundation, there were more reports of child sexual abuse material investigated in 2021 than in the whole first 15 years of IWF’s existence. Online abuse is hard for adults to spot and disappearing messages in apps such as Snapchat make abuse much harder to evidence.
The experience of our services supports the findings that child sexual exploitation is sometimes being overlooked or not appropriately picked up. There is a strong link between criminal exploitation and sexual exploitation. Currently the national focus is on County Lines exploitation, a form of criminal exploitation, so professionals often appropriately identify the one, but overlook the other. We have seen gendered assumptions by safeguarding professionals leading to the sexual exploitation of boys in particular being overlooked.
What Catch22 wants to see
- Child sexual exploitation needs to be identified more effectively and all children should be consistently recognised and supported as victims, not blamed implicitly or explicitly for their abuse. Child sexual exploitation is less likely to be recognised if a child is over the age of sexual consent. However, it is still exploitation when a young person aged 16+ is subject to coercion, manipulation, or blackmail. Older teenagers do not always receive the support and protection they need.
- We would welcome a national child exploitation strategy – a whole-government approach, involving stakeholders at all levels – which recognises how interconnected child sexual exploitation, criminal exploitation, grooming, and going missing are. We would also welcome updated Government guidance on missing children and child sexual exploitation to meet the current threats.
- A flexible and responsive multi-agency approach should be prioritised for all services working with vulnerable children. Co-location of safeguarding services and the commissioning of Missing and Child Exploitation Services together enables children to have a single, consistent worker with whom they can build a trusting relationship. For example, Catch22’s Pan Merseyside service, which has just been recommissioned, is part of a multi-agency team set up with Police, Health, Education and Social Care – part of the pan-Merseyside Missing and Child Exploitation Protocol. The success of the service demonstrates the impact of effective information sharing across social care teams and the early intervention tailored to the child.
Catch22 conducts Return Home Interviews when a child returns after going missing and delivers support services for children either affected by or at risk of child exploitation. This involves long-term one-to-one support with a child alongside support for their parents/carers and the professionals engaging with that child.
Catch22’s approach to tackling child exploitation is based on our Risk and Resilience model. This approach recognises different forms of exploitation and is focussed on the child and what is happening to them, rather than trying to fit their experience into a specific model or definition. By putting the child at the centre, we are more likely to reduce the risks and prevent future harm.
Catch22 extends sincere thanks to the brave children and young people who have shared their stories to the inquiry.