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Child exploitation

Youth participation – it’s win, win, win

A young woman smiles at the camera. In the background, a group of young people work together on a project.

For CSE Day 2019, Sarah Parker, Volunteer Coordinator at Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) Service explains how youth participation is not only a positive thing for CSE Services but shows that young people can take you in a direction you didn’t expect.

“Everyone has a voice and it deserves to be heard no matter who you are, where you’re from or whatever you’ve been through.”

– Young person who has been supported by Catch22 in Stoke

The children and young people we work with in Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire, along with teenagers up and down the country, often feel these that they have no control or power and are not being listened to or consulted. On top of feeling judged and ignored, many of our young people have been groomed and exploited, which simply reinforces their sense of powerlessness and lack of voice.

“Accept and acknowledge that it takes a long time to fully understand what’s happened to me. Denial, grief, loss, anger are all part of coming to terms with it.”

Young person who has been supported by Catch22 in Staffordshire

In our Catch22 CSE and Missing Service, we have a Young People’s Forum made up of children and young people who meet with us regularly to give us feedback on the current services along with advice and suggestions for future service development. They have helped design promotional material, spearheaded campaigns, advised us on the use of apps and video resources, explained how they would prefer to receive support and told us that further social opportunities were lacking and we should provide them. In short, they have been an amazing asset.

So why encourage youth participation?

1. It’s a win for our service.

With young people’s guidance and feedback, we are bound to be able to provide more effective and appropriate support. Theirs is the expert voice. Without them, we wouldn’t know what apps children are currently using, whether a resource is helpful, what is lacking in our support….and so much more besides. With them, we know that we can shape the service to provide the very best support to children in this area. This improves our sense of job satisfaction and accomplishment as staff, but also enhances the outcomes we can evidence to our commissioners.

2. It’s a win for the community.

The better we perform as a service, the safer children and young people living in this area will be. If we are providing a really effective local solution, geared closely to the needs, interests and concerns of young people in Stoke and Staffordshire, we can have a much greater impact. The Young People’s Forum enables us to provide ‘support with a local accent.’

3. And most importantly, it’s a win for the young people.

Hopefully all young people will benefit from the Forum’s work. But we especially hope that those young people who choose to share their time, insight and expertise with us find it a rewarding and empowering experience. Being actively involved in the co-production and development of our service gives them confidence and transferable skills. It shifts the view of children as beneficiaries of support who come with needs and deficiencies to a view of children as rights-holders who are able to help shape their own future.

Meaningful youth participation means listening and acting

If you ask children to help you make decisions about the future direction of your work, you may find (as we have) that they take you places you didn’t expect to go! We asked them to help design a business card for young people making them aware of what Catch22 can offer, in response to a suggestion from local schools. They agreed to help if we wanted that, but made it clear that they would never pick one up themselves, so they thought we would be wasting our time and money. That was us told. They also said they wanted further safe social opportunities. We hadn’t planned to start up a Catch22 youth group, but – although we don’t meet frequently – that’s exactly what we have done.

“Keep an open mind about change and new ideas. Don’t just keep on doing the same thing.”

– Young person who has been supported by Catch22 in Staffordshire

If you are thinking about setting up some form of youth participation, it absolutely has to be meaningful, not tokenistic. Asking children and then failing to listen or act is worse than not asking them at all. It’s also really important to be clear about the limits of their influence. There are some things we know we have to do, some things we can’t change. But for all the things we can change, why wouldn’t we listen to the very people we exist for?