My day began early with an unexpected text message. I had been working with Anna*, a young person deemed at risk of CSE, for the past six months. She had initially agreed to work with me as part of Protect and Respect – an NSPCC service which aims to support children when there are concerns about child sexual exploitation.
Progress with Anna over the last six months had been slow. She had so far refused to engage in any direct work with me, and I only had brief contact with her during my weekly visits to her family home. Anna cancelled most of the sessions I organised, but when I discussed closing the case she was adamant she still wanted to work with me. This, I have found, is not uncommon for young people who have experienced CSE; there is often a lack of trust towards professionals, and building a relationship takes considerable time. I had always tried to be consistent and reliable in my contact with Anna, in the hope that one day she would feel able to engage with me further.
Her sudden text seemed to signal she was now willing to engage. She asked if we had a session scheduled today, even though we’d already spoken about how she couldn’t attend our next session, due the following week. Despite having a full diary of prior commitments, and Anna being an hour’s drive away, I knew it was vital to take this opportunity to meet with her, as it was so rare for Anna to reach out.
We met for breakfast in a café local to Anna. For half an hour, our meeting was general chit chat – I didn’t pressure Anna to discuss any instances of concern. She told me how she enjoyed her job and didn’t like going to school; she spoke of her dream to move out and live with her friends, and how they would decorate their shared flat. As our chat drew to a close, I offered to take her home – I’ve often found that if a young person wants to talk about something, they will do it in the car. I find that the sound of the engine, plus the lack of eye contact with the person you’re talking to, allows for a more comfortable environment. It was here that Anna was able to disclose.
It had taken nearly six months of regular contact with Anna for her to finally reach this point, and talk about the exploitation she had experienced. There were many times when I felt that little progress had been made, but Anna’s journey demonstrates the unequivocal importance of relationship building. Children who have been abused in this way often have little trust in the people around them, particularly professionals. Protect and Respect is all about taking a more flexible approach to engaging and supporting children – responding to what works for them, and their individual needs. As I returned to work, prepared to take Anna’s disclosure forward, I knew that this approach would continue to be vital in supporting Anna and her family through their next steps.