Last week (19thNovember 2018) the NWG co-hosted a roundtable event with Space – a charity dedicated to tackling child criminal exploitation, at the Houses of Parliament. The room was packed with professionals from the length and breadth of the country, as well as academics, researchers and those with lived experience of exploitation.
The event was organised in response to ongoing concerns regarding how the systems currently used to protect children meet the needs of those affected by child exploitation in all its forms, particularly focusing on older children, for example 16 and 17-year olds. The final key line of enquiry for discussion at the event was the support that parents of children affected by exploitation need and whether agencies are currently meeting those requirements.
The event was opened by Ann Coffey MP – a champion for the needs of adolescents who encounter a range of challenges. Ann made an excellent point about the impact of having such a low minimum age of criminal responsibility in this country and the impact that has on how we respond to child exploitation.
We were all very fortunate to hear the moving account of a parent whose child has been, and still very much is, affected by child exploitation. There is a risk, as professionals, that as we deal with exploitation on a daily basis we can become desensitised to the horrific abuse we are working with. Thanks to the brave testimony of this parent, those present were reminded of the horrendous impact exploitation has not only on the child but their family too.
Our own Steve Baguley had the hard task of following this speaker but spoke of the views of professionals he had engaged with as he visited 85 local authorities this year. We were extremely fortunate to also hear from local authorities who have changed their approaches to safeguarding adolescents, for example Greater Manchester and their complex safeguarding approach, as well as input from academic centres such as the University of Bedfordshire – discussing Contextual Safeguarding.
A common theme echoed by all speakers was that current child protection structures are often hindering professionals in regard of adolescents, as they are designed to support the needs of younger children, who often face threats from within family homes. Child protection conferences were also seen as inappropriate vehicles for ensuring older children’s wishes and feelings were considered, as well as being very adversarial for parents or carers.
Indeed, the support currently offered to parents whose children are affected by exploitation was universally seen as inappropriate and, in some cases, unfairly apportioning blame to parents for their child’s exploitation. Perhaps the most striking comment in regard of parental frustration was a reflection that often we are not hearing the child’s voice, or seeing a reflection of poor parenting, but in fact are hearing the perpetrator’s voice and witnessing the impact of the grooming process.
The final key area for discussion was the particular challenges facing 16 and 17-year olds affected by exploitation. In some instances, legislation offers less support to this group of children – child abduction notices for example not being available to safeguard 16 and 17-year olds unless they are on a full care order. In other contexts, it was the interpretation of the law, which was having a negative impact on children approaching adulthood – inappropriate understanding of consent being applied to the Sexual Offences Act for example.
There then followed a passionate, yet professional discussion on the key issues, but more importantly what the next steps were. A number of delegates observed that system change needed to go hand-in-hand with culture change. There was a real sense of commitment and universal support to address some of the issues raised above. The NWG alongside Space will be publishing the minutes from the meeting shortly and hoping to build on the momentum from the event to affect positive change. Watch this space for details of the next steps in the coming months. If you’re interested in discussing any of the issues considered at the roundtable event please get in touch with us.
National Response Unit Lead