How we’re learning from and developing our child sexual exploitation intervention
Dr Holly Gordon
In recent years the understanding and evidence base in relation to child sexual exploitation (CSE) has grown significantly, and continues to evolve at a rapid pace.
The NSPCC’s Protect and Respect service has been supporting children who have been sexually exploited, or where concerns of exploitation have arisen, since 2012. In recent years the understanding and evidence base in relation to exploitation has grown significantly, and continues to evolve at a rapid pace. Our own internal evaluation was published in March 2019, and in response to these findings we’ve launched a revised service – one which provides a strong framework for practice which can accommodate the high levels of uncertainty when working with exploitation.
This evaluation and period of reflection highlighted several features of the service which were effective, and these have been retained in the revised service offer for one-to-one support. These features include:
- Long-term support: It was acknowledged that the child and practitioner need time to develop a trusting relationship. Perseverance was a necessary trait for practitioners as developing trust was not easy, and they needed to continually encourage the child’s engagement, which could fluctuate at times.
- Intensive support: It was felt that many children had extensive needs across a range of domains, which the practitioner was able to give a lot of time to, over the course of intensive weekly sessions.
- Supporting children during their transition to adulthood: Continuing to offer support after the child turned 18 was deemed crucial to their progress – to either allow support to continue when other services had ceased, or help transition them to adult service providers.
- Flexibility: The ability of the service to be flexible and meet the needs of the child worked well. The practitioner and child co-produce a work plan which addresses areas they have agreed to explore together, and sometimes the primary concern of the child isn’t exploitation (e.g. basic needs, such as housing).
Although we were able to recognise ways in which the Protect and Respect service was working well, the evaluation and period of reflection also identified areas which needed to be revised, based on contemporary knowledge:
- Assessing risk: The previous assessment tool included scoring the level of risk, but for many children we didn’t know with certainty whether they had experienced exploitation, or were at risk of experiencing it. Scoring risks of CSE has been challenged by Brown et al (2016; 2017) and commonly used indicators have been found to have a limited evidence base. Protect and Respect has redeveloped the assessment tool to reflect a strengths-based, child-centred assessment which uses professional judgement and an understanding of a child’s lived experience.
- Trauma-informed approach: As a result of an increased awareness of trauma-informed approaches, which seek to avoid re-traumatisation and victim blaming, Protect and Respect does not show any child films which depict abuse, pending abuse or violence. The service has also adopted Barnardo’s (2018) basic practice checklist for schools work on child sexual abuse (CSA), and seeks to ensure that practice is compliant with this checklist.
- Involving parents: The evaluation showed that outcomes were more positive when parents were actively involved. The revised service will offer an increased and consistent parent support offer, with both the child and parent allocated separate practitioners, who then work closely together.
- Wider forms of exploitation: The one-to-one service is now framed as an exploitation service as opposed to a CSE service, in recognition of the interconnected nature of wider forms of exploitation.
This revised Protect and Respect service has been designed through an evidenced-informed practice lens. This differs from an evidenced-based model, as it implies that there are a range of different levels and types of evidence which are required to support decision-making when working with families with complex needs. Evidence-informed practice still values academic research; however it ensures that professional judgement and service user expertise are afforded equal importance. By combining research, experience and expertise, the revised offer can engage with the continual learning in the area of exploitation, and adapt to ensure that it remains up to date with the rapidly evolving practice developments.
Going forward, the Protect and Respect service intends to address these evaluation findings and challenges; creating a simpler intervention which builds on what we know works well and adapting our approaches to move away from those with little or no evidence. The aim is to implement an evidenced-informed service which reflects our learning from our own evaluation and the wider evidence base, as well as keeping pace with the lives and experiences of the children with whom we want to engage.
About the author
Dr Holly Gordon is a Development & Impact Manager at the NSPCC.