Voice of the Victim: Reflections on Child Sexual Exploitation

The following is a reflection of thoughts on the ‘Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation & Abuse’ conference by Lancashire Constabulary on 9 November 2016. This was a well-attended conference, with representatives from the police, local authorities, practitioners, support services and academia.

Three main themes quickly became apparent. First, the prevalence of child sexual exploitation (CSE) is greater than originally thought. In one 48-hour period, one police force received four reports of arson, six reports of theft, and 16 reports of CSE. This is just one example of the growing problem of CSE and the challenges it presents to professionals working in this area.

The most moving presentation came from a survivor of significant abuse and CSE in childhood. Her personal talk gave an outline of the mental health difficulties she continues to experience to this day as a result of her early experiences. Very often, procedures put in place to protect survivors from themselves (such as detention or arrest and transport to hospital for assessment) only served to reignite traumatic memories of the initial abuse.

Throughout the conference, there was a clear message that professionals should appreciate circumstances from the survivor’s perspective to really understand their thoughts and behaviours. In essence, the voice of the victim should be heard in the criminal justice system, from reporting, assessment and possible treatment by secondary services. Clearly, a trauma-informed approach is needed from professionals when dealing with those exposed to CSE and other traumatic events.

The second major focus of the conference addressed diversity issues in CSE. It was clear that there was a real gap in the literature in respect of the experiences of boys exposed to CSE, as many studies to date have framed CSE as a female victim and male perpetrator issue. There is also a general lack of knowledge as to how CSE is experienced by children in BME communities and in those with learning disabilities. Individuals may respond differently to CSE, shaped by their understanding of the world and wider social and cultural context. Again, these voices need to be heard through research and engagement.

The presentations contained many interesting debates that warrant consideration. Notably, victim services questioned whether there had been appropriate attempts to reach specific populations traditionally regarded as ‘hard to reach’ (such as BME communities and children with learning needs), in order to fully engage with CSE survivors from these backgrounds. Another service called for further research into how CSE can be appropriately recognised and risk assessed, given that these factors vary considerably from person to person and some CSE survivors may not display any typical signs of exploitation at all. That said, even with limited findings in these populations, it is important to recognise these individuals as children, first and foremost, in the way we approach this sensitive issue.

The conference was extremely informative and outlined current initiatives to deal with CSE. It is encouraging that awareness of CSE is increasing, which will promote more child-centred, holistic and innovate ways to support and engage with survivors. When the voice of the victim is heard, it can only have a positive effect on outcomes for survivors of CSE moving forward.