Young People and Sexual Exploitation: Its Not Hidden, You Just Arent Looking


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Exploiters use threats, bullying and intimidation to instil fear in children of telling others about harm they are experiencing Brayley et al. Many exploiters also intersperse abuse with unpredictable gifts of affection or material reward which inculcates a sense of attachment and loyalty in the abuser, and a sense of inevitability regarding the abusive relationship, however damaging it is Jago et al.

Even where they do come to recognise their own exploitation, trusting others, including professionals, might become even harder, as the young person starts realise that someone they thought had loved them did not and had betrayed their trust Smeaton, Young people commonly fear the reaction of family, friends or professionals to revelations of the CSE, particularly fearing not being listened to or believed and being judged or blamed.

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Studies seeking the views of vulnerable children and young people continually report that recognition of their own abuse, disclosure of abuse and engaging in interventions are most likely to be achieved within the context of a trusted professional relationship where they feel supported and emotionally close to the worker Smeaton, This can mean that, even though young people may not be ready to engage with risk-focused interventions initially, when a window opens that suggests a young person does want to change their life, there is already a worker in place they trust to turn to Hickle and Hallett, These negative experiences with professionals can become a kind of exploitation in themselves, mirroring the constrained choices, coercion, stigma and isolation embedded in their experiences of CSE.

The first Cossar et al. As with similar studies, the personal qualities and approach of the professional helper were seen as central: being kind, sympathetic and caring; being reliable, consistent, accessible and available; being knowledgeable and competent in relation to abuse; offering clear information, explanations and advice; respecting privacy and confidentiality.

The second Berelowitz et al. Seeking to address the deficits in service structure and delivery highlighted by the gangs and groups inquiry, the framework provides guidance for all service levels, from strategic management to front line practice, outlining the functions and processes required to form a holistic response to sexual exploitation within each locality. It seeks to promote the voice of both child and professional, and to protect the child, through nine foundations and seven principles, which are summarised in Figure 1.

The OCC subsequently issued a tender for the See Me, Hear Me framework to be piloted and evaluated in three local authority areas in England, in order to establish the efficacy of the framework for improving the identification and protection of children being sexually exploited or abused.

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The authors of this paper, based at one university in England, were subsequently commissioned to undertake the project and this paper considers findings in relation to one strand: how professionals in the three local authorities were seeking to build trust with children and young people at risk of CSE. The overall project has followed a realist evaluation methodology Pawson and Tilley, , to evaluate differences made to service structure and delivery through implementation of the framework within three pilot sites in different regions of England.

The sites were selected by the OCC to represent a geographical mix. Measures have included: a mid-stage and final survey of all professionals working with CSE in each area; interviews with representatives from agencies working with CSE; interviews with children who had experienced CSE interventions in those areas; observations of multi-agency CSE decision-making fora; and analysis of data relating to child referrals and outcomes. Ethical clearance was provided through the university leading the project.

Young People and Sexual Exploitation: 'It's Not Hidden, You Just Aren't Looking'

Standard ethical principles such as informed consent, confidentiality and anonymity were followed. This paper does not focus on the evaluation as a whole, which is to be reported elsewhere Lefevre, forthcoming Instead, it draws on the midway survey which was completed between July and October by participants. The survey was disseminated within each site by the lead workers within each agency and through the Local Safeguarding Children Boards with the instruction that it should be filled in by any professional self-identifying as undertaking work related to CSE.

Given the self-identification invitation, it is impossible to know the size of the complete sample; consequently, sampling bias cannot be determined, nor the proportion completing ascertained. Table 1 shows that participants covered a range of professional roles, with police officers and local authority social workers being the largest groups. The length of time professionals had been in post ranged from a few weeks to twenty-five years.

Sixty per cent had been directly involved in a case where one or more children were identified as having experienced, or were at risk of experiencing, CSE. Others were in managerial, supervisory or strategic roles. Table 1 Professional roles of survey participants. In this study, Over 80 per cent identified as White British. The overall survey was designed to investigate how professionals involved in CSE cases across the three sites in England felt about their own practice response, and that of their agency and local authority, in relation to CSE.

This paper draws upon just two of the survey questions: those regarding trust between children and professionals. Survey participants were first asked to rate, using a Likert scale, how confident they were that they could enable a child to trust them enough to disclose CSE.

Analysis is provided in Table 2. Table 2 How confident participants felt in enabling a child to trust them enough to disclose CSE.

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Respondents had an open space to write as much or as little as they wanted. Some wrote a few words, others a few sentences. Thematic analysis Braun and Clarke, was undertaken on the responses to this question, using computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software package NVivo version 10 to organise data. The first and second author analysed the data together, discussing and resolving any discrepancies in interpretation throughout.

The categories identified in this study were then streamed into four themes, shown in Table 3. The frequency cited represents the number of survey respondents providing material consistent with that category. Some respondents wrote just a word or short phrase that represented one category e. Others wrote longer narrative responses, with material covering several categories. The purpose of tabulating the number of respondents providing material relating to particular categories is to provide a broad indication of the categories which more respondents thought were important in building trust.

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However, no statistical significance is intended as the categorisation is fuzzy Alexander and Enns, : whilst the categories share similar central tendencies or associated features, the extent to which they fit unambiguously into themes is graded rather than entirely clear-cut and some responses are coded in more than one category. Regardless of these limitations, it is notable that some words and phrases are mentioned by respondents many more times than others.

Table 3 Factors which survey respondents cited as encouraging children at risk of CSE to trust them. Separately to the survey, interviews were conducted with fourteen participants across Site 1 who had been identified by the site lead worker as key professionals working with CSE. The interviews were designed to elicit perceptions of the strengths and limitations to the approach taken to assessing and working with CSE in that area.

A specific question about trust was not asked of the interviewees.

Emotional abuse: The hidden form of maltreatment

However, a number of interviewees spontaneously discussed their own work and that of their colleagues in relation to the importance of developing trust if young people were to be engaged in risk assessment and intervention. Their responses have been drawn upon to provide further insight into some of the themes and categories identified through the survey analysis.

While 60 per cent of survey respondents were not confident that they could enable a child to trust them enough to disclose CSE, all but two respondents were able to suggest strategies for what they or other professionals might do in an attempt to build trust with children and young people at risk of CSE.


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Through analysis, a number of categories could be distinguished which were subsequently streamed into four main themes: relationship-based practice; child-centred practice; an ethically grounded approach; and being skilled and knowledgeable in relation to working with CSE. Table 3 sets out the themes and categories, noting the number of respondents referring to material consistent with a particular category. Many of the survey respondents and interviewees were of the view that trust was facilitated through engaged relationships with children.

Whilst CSE assessments and interventions can often be short-term in nature, requiring a rapport to be built rapidly, participants echoed young people Smeaton, in describing how it can often take a relationship established over time for children to begin to trust workers enough to acknowledge the risks they are facing. It takes time for workers to get to know the children well enough to understand their experiences and patterns of behaviour so that they can respond to the child in a way that enables a child to feel safe and comfortable enough to explore their feelings and concerns, possibly even to disclose risky situations.

Building the relationship often meant spending time with the children in a more relaxed and informal way, and engaging in mutual activities and talk which are not just about CSE. Cossar et al. In this, the professional relationship was seen not only as offsetting the emotionally neglectful, abusive and traumatic childhoods children experiencing CSE have often experienced Klatt et al. The category mentioned the most was the importance of showing children that they were being listened to carefully, openly and actively—an element emphasised constantly in research with children Berelowitz et al.

Respondents recognised that children wanted professionals to take their wants, needs and concerns seriously, and some reflected how the concept of listening is not unproblematic: for children, it may not just mean hearing their words, but acting in line with their views McLeod, Some interviewees referred to the tension which arises when an approach taken to protect a child, such as taking away their mobile phones, policing their social media use and using secure accommodation, may transgress their wishes, autonomy or even freedom.

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Participants were advised that they needed to be available when children were ready to talk, perhaps giving out a mobile number or e-mail address so that the child did not have to traverse a switchboard or go through another adult, such as a parent or foster-carer, to make contact. They had noticed that, where children felt the environment was comfortable and professionals were receptive to their cues, children were more likely to let their guard down and explore risks and protective strategies.

Young people are often guarded about talking about their CSE for fear of being judged Hallett, Transparency was considered important in relation when and how confidentiality might be breached. Ensuring young people were aware from the start of the limits to confidentiality on the grounds of safeguarding, and discussing the need to share information with other professionals in advance of it happening, were approaches commonly adopted.

What do you want to talk about? Respondents recognised that children needed to feel believed by professionals and to hear that their abuse was not their fault. Some were concerned that depriving children of their liberty through secure accommodation or other controls placed over their autonomy in order to protect them, such as the confiscation of mobile phones, could give children a message of blame and punishment, particularly when they saw how rarely perpetrators were prosecuted. Only two categories were included within this theme, and they were mentioned by fewer respondents.

Most survey respondents were able to indicate strategies for building trust with children at risk of CSE. These were largely congruent with the recommendations children themselves have provided elsewhere e. Hallett, ; Gilligan, indicating a good level of awareness of the needs and challenges posed by this group. However, there seemed to be a disparity between this apparent knowledge ability and the limited confidence respondents had that they could enable children to trust them sufficiently to disclose CSE.

The survey does not provide data which directly address this disparity. However, it is possible that it reflects the intensive and endless efforts practitioners need to make in seeking to find a way in and through with this group, as set out in the literature review e. Jago et al. These reflect a clear message of the importance of patiently, consistently and tirelessly waiting for the window of opportunity with a young person without being deterred by their avoidance, distancing or even hostility.

Linked to this is the important role played by the facilitating relationship, values and environment which suggests a huge commitment, even burden, on the part of the practitioner in terms of time and emotional labour. Much has been written elsewhere about the damage caused by employers not supporting direct practice Munro, ; Ruch, Participants referred to the importance of smaller caseloads, which give practitioners the time to create a relaxed environment where they can get to know children well enough to help them. Jenny J. While child protection interventions must guide social work, she argues that other agencies such as health, education, housing and training each have a role to play in supporting a sexually exploited young person.

The book advocates the relationship between practitioners and the young people they aim to support to be one of the most important resources in practice.

Young People and Sexual Exploitation: Its Not Hidden, You Just Arent Looking Young People and Sexual Exploitation: Its Not Hidden, You Just Arent Looking
Young People and Sexual Exploitation: Its Not Hidden, You Just Arent Looking Young People and Sexual Exploitation: Its Not Hidden, You Just Arent Looking
Young People and Sexual Exploitation: Its Not Hidden, You Just Arent Looking Young People and Sexual Exploitation: Its Not Hidden, You Just Arent Looking
Young People and Sexual Exploitation: Its Not Hidden, You Just Arent Looking Young People and Sexual Exploitation: Its Not Hidden, You Just Arent Looking
Young People and Sexual Exploitation: Its Not Hidden, You Just Arent Looking Young People and Sexual Exploitation: Its Not Hidden, You Just Arent Looking
Young People and Sexual Exploitation: Its Not Hidden, You Just Arent Looking Young People and Sexual Exploitation: Its Not Hidden, You Just Arent Looking
Young People and Sexual Exploitation: Its Not Hidden, You Just Arent Looking Young People and Sexual Exploitation: Its Not Hidden, You Just Arent Looking
Young People and Sexual Exploitation: Its Not Hidden, You Just Arent Looking Young People and Sexual Exploitation: Its Not Hidden, You Just Arent Looking

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