Catch22 has called for a National Child Exploitation Strategy – acknowledging the risks of missing incidents and incorporating a child criminal exploitation strategy. Here, we share insight from the latest blog from SPACE (Stop and Prevent Adolescent Criminal Exploitation).
SPACE is an organisation working to stop and prevent adolescent criminal exploitation. In their latest blog, also published in part in Police Oracle, they share their views of what is missing both in policy and in public perception. Across child sexual exploitation (CSE) and child criminal exploitation (CCE), including County Lines – an organised crime model which uses children and vulnerable adults for the supply of illicit drugs – missing incidents are a common occurrence. And yet, too often missing episodes are the missed opportunity to intervene because the risks are underestimated.
Prevention is missing
In current national strategies, particularly those focused on Modern Slavery and Child Sexual Abuse, exploitation of a child is acknowledged but there is little priority given to the signs requiring early intervention, such as missing incidences, or the highly organised nature of the likes of County Lines.
SPACE highlights that the grooming process which occurs for a young person to become involved in County Lines is likely long before a case is ever flagged under the Modern Slavery Strategy:
“By the time a first missing episode occurs, grooming on a grand scale has largely already succeeded hence the missing itself.”
“[There are] lost opportunities and failures to recognise missing as a key indicator of County Lines exploitation, often alongside a presentation of multiple concerns and evidence, suspicions of which should trigger a statutory duty to refer suspected victims into the National Referral Mechanism, to determine whether or not an individual is a victim of Modern Slavery.”
The gaps resulting from the lack of one overarching exploitation strategy are highlighted in the piece. Referring to the criminal exploitation victims transporting drugs internally and says:
“It is rarely responded to as a child protection or safeguarding concern, but more as a criminal tactic or behaviour despite being undertaken by children… Bizarrely it isn’t seen [as] Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE), despite the DfE definition of CSE confirming sexual activity can appear consensual and there can be an absence of physical contact by exploiters.”
The typical victim?
Too often, victims of criminal exploitation are expected to fit a typical victim mould. There is an expectation that they should be aware of their experience to the same degree an adult would.
The perceptions of criminal exploitation victims, particularly those located miles away from home, are still that these young people are offenders, consciously making such decisions, with agency and choice, rather than them being victims of exploitation. SPACE says we must acknowledge the trauma these young people find themselves in, often in early adolescence, if we have any intention to help them exit such situations.
“Children disappear into these dark holes for days, weeks or months with no access to regular meals, washing or sleeping facilities, on call or alert 24/7, feed themselves rubbish from takings only when instructed … [They] both experience and witness violence and sexual abuse, and are exposed to potential infections given the drugs-related setting they are [in].”
It is a huge challenge for young people to safely exit such organised groups, be it gang-affiliated or otherwise, and currently no national strategy acknowledges this. Instead, children who have been involved in such environments are likely to find themselves criminalised or trapped in such a life forever.
Families are missing support
While we know that creative outlets for children at risk can change lives, SPACE says this is inadequate for those families already dealing with the consequences of County Lines, or other criminal exploitation:
“No exploited child has the luxury of choice to embrace a gifted gym pass or new hobby whilst their entire focus remains on keeping themselves or threatened family alive. Nor can any parent be trained or equipped to fight off harm beyond their front door when law enforcement can’t, nor should they be left or expected to.”
The only family interventions in place are Return Home Interviews, the statutory requirement to offer an interview with the child on return from going missing, however, these currently have a 72-hour target, which is not always right for the child, and the statutory guidance on these has been delayed, having not been updated since 2014.
“There is an exasperating lack of meaningful action or intervention to reduce missing or address the extra familial harm controlling it. This manifests itself in reactive, tick-box responses particularly in repeat-missing cases where regular or daily trafficking occurs, often within minutes of a return or welfare check by Police.”
SPACE reports that sometimes, as the frequency of reporting increases and the need for help escalates, the help available can reduce:
“As if desensitised, [there is] a pervading sense of parent-blaming – that parents are somehow not managing their child appropriately or adequately and the child is continuing to ‘put himself at risk’ or ‘not learning his lesson’.”
The missing opportunity
Missing is often the entry point for statutory services and is a pivotal point in an exploited child’s journey:
“Missing incidents must therefore be grasped as a golden moment, with a clear goal of urgent extrication from CCE to avert extreme emotional harm and trauma, as well as radicalisation into extremism, serious violence and criminality, and fatality.”