Today, on National Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) Awareness day, I have been reflecting on a turbulent year. I’m thinking about the work I do in the context of the huge awareness campaigns and ongoing investigations and prosecutions in relation to sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation.
This past year women’s and men’s voices have grown louder when talking about their own abuse or when commenting on the responsibilities, successes or failings of the criminal justice system.
All the while I have been following the Government’s Tackling CSE Action plan, the development of the Centre of Expertise on CSE and the CSE Response Unit within the child sexual abuse network, National Working Group (NRG). I know from personal experience that having support from the response unit and a central point of contact is so important in tackling CSE.
Raising awareness definitely helps. Enabling people to speak out and also to seek support is vital. The #MeToo movement, along with high profile cases involving perpetrators like Barry Benell or Larry Nassar, has helped propel the issue to the top of people’s minds.
This is alerting us to the fact that, unfortunately, the sexual abuse of children, women, boys and men is happening all over the world – and it isn’t something perpetrated only by men against women or girls. In situations where there has been a clear power differential, men and boys have been horrifically affected too.
I feel privileged to work to help those who have been abused. I often ground myself in relation to CSE by thinking about the 3 Ps: Prevention, Protection and Prosecution and hope that all services can work together to make this happen.
Supporting young people
A lot of children and young people want to read stories from their peers as they develop the confidence to speak out. In focusing on prevention, articles and online forums often centre on healthy relationships, establishing boundaries, raising awareness of abuse, understanding consent, grooming and staying safe online/on apps. There is also work being done in supporting young victims of crime, giving them access to detailed articles, live forums, and information on how to stay safe and what to do in the event of a crime.
Young people tell me that they want instant access to anonymous support. They want to reach out for help when they need it and when they feel ready.
In my experience, services to which children and young people self-refer can offer something deeper. A self-referral can make a young person feel they have choice and control over their support. Feeling some small amount of control, in such an out-of-control situation, can be extremely powerful.
Young people who I have supported who have experienced exploitation and abuse have shared how out of control they feel; the fear, violence, nightmares, flashbacks, depression, self-harm, suicidal ideation and isolation from friends and family.
Adversity and trauma
Latest statistics show that one in three adult mental health issues relate directly to adverse childhood experiences. It is imperative that we understand the impact that adversity and trauma can have on the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people and that they are given access to services which can identify their mental health needs. We need to truly listen to the ‘voice of the child’ in all of this.
The Early Intervention Foundation’s (EIF) recent report stated that children who experience abuse often lack a designated adult outside of the family system who is able to provide consistent support – or a ‘trusted relationship’.
I totally agree. As a therapist, consistency and enabling a trusted relationship is vital. I’d also say that taking time to build trust is important, ensuring we support young people in avoiding risky situations and overcoming adverse situations.
Professionals readily acknowledge CSE does not take place in isolation, and many children and young people will be affected by multiple safeguarding issues.
They need access to support and a trusted relationship often to support them as they negotiate their way through all the services they may be involved with. The ‘team around the child’ approach is so important to ensure we are supporting young people holistically, but, if we are not working effectively together, that can also leave a young person feeling surrounded or lost within services
Daniel (not his real name) came to Kooth last year after seeing a presentation in his college. I remember in one of our first online sessions sensing how scared he was, often only responding to me in a single word. It took time, consistency and the opportunity to develop that trusted relationship before we could even begin to explore past abuse, neglect as a child growing up at home, loss, sexual abuse and exploitation.
Daniel has, in his own time and at his own pace, continued to work through his own recovery. He has enabled us to join with the police, his college and his GP to ensure we are working effectively with services to keep him safe.
After a few online counselling sessions, he said: ‘It was the first time I realised I was not to blame for what was happening to me’.
It’s real life experiences like these which show me why I should continue to fight to ensure we prevent it by educating and protecting young people, offering those trusted relationships and time. Prosecuting and disrupting perpetrators by working effectively with services is also vital. That is why I am uniting with the National Working Group today on its 4th National Child Sexual Exploitation Awareness Raising Day, to continue to talk about the issues surrounding CSE, to focus on the voice of the child, and to encourage everyone to think, spot and speak out against this horrific abuse.
Learning and Development Lead