In tackling exploitation and abuse, we can never stop learning and questioning

27 October 2017

Dez HolmesImproving our prevention of and response to child sexual exploitation (CSE) requires not just hard work and tenacity, but a willingness to engage with evidence. It is easy to be evidence-based when you agree with the messages, but when research challenges established practice, it takes real grit to reflect critically on what we do.

The evidence base is constantly evolving, with a great deal of new research and practice emerging in recent years – see the work of the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse for example. 

In 2015, Research in Practice (RiP) was invited by Wigan and Rochdale local authorities to support their Innovation pilot funded by the Department of Education. RiP was asked to produce a review of the evidence. Wigan and Rochdale, along with The Children’s Society, combined the messages from this Evidence Scope, with the perspectives of CSE-affected young people and professionals’ views to design their approach to CSE. The evaluation report shows the positive results.

This Evidence Scope has been refreshed in order to reflect new research and learning from practice. It offers a number of messages, which may seem a little challenging. This is certainly not to say people have been ‘doing everything wrong’ but it does suggest that some established approaches and ideas – usually based on the available evidence of the time – need to be reconsidered.  

All of us, no matter how experienced in this field, must take time to reflect on new evidence. It takes courage to do so. Some of the key questions raised by the revised Scope include:

1)  Is it still helpful to have a separate definition for CSE?

CSE is unarguably a form of child sexual abuse, which already has a statutory definition (see more on definitions in the extended text of the CSE guidance). Whilst developing a separate definition undoubtedly helped to raise awareness of CSE, it’s possibly creating confusion for those trying to determine whether a child experiencing sexual harm is technically a victim of CSE. Grappling with the nuances of definitions should never distract us from protecting children at risk.

2)  Are we perpetuating unhelpful stereotypes?

Victims and perpetrators are hugely diverse, with all ethnicities, social classes and genders represented in both groups. To use images of white working class girls as victims (and often Asian men as perpetrators) can misrepresent the complexity of CSE. We need to challenge this in our professional materials and in the media.

3)  Are we still using ideas that are out of date?

Some established concepts, such as ‘the grooming line’ – used to describe a staged process wherein a victim is targeted, befriended, made to feel they are in a romantic relationship and then abused – now may need to be reconsidered as the evidence evolves. Grooming is rarely linear, varies considerably in the methods used, and is not a pathway to harm but is in itself harmful. Also, the grooming line doesn’t adequately take into account online sexual abuse and exploitation – an increasing concern for those working to safeguard children and young people.

4)  Are some risk assessment tools too risky to use?

The Scope draws on excellent work by Professor Brown at Coventry University, to question the use of CSE risk assessment toolkits and checklists. Current evidence now suggests that very few of the ‘warning signs’ that appear in these lists are based on robust scientific evidence at this point in time. They can be used inconsistently, and some include scoring which is not supported by strong evidence. They might be too general, or they might create blindspots (eg the tool might focus on risk indicators in a way that emphasises girls’ behaviour, but overlooks boys being abused) and they might undermine professional judgment. 

5)  Are we using educational resources safely and ethically?

The Scope questions the use of some resources designed to educate children and young people about CSE, most of which have not been tested scientifically. Good quality relationships and sex education is vital; it supports healthy childhoods and may even help a child to disclose abuse. However, it should not be described as ‘preventative’ – a child’s understanding or the choices they make cannot stop an abuser determined to commit harm. We invite a more thoughtful debate about the ethical issues of using these resources. Showing a whole school assembly a video where a young person ends up being harmed may intuitively seem like an effective way to ‘shock’ young people into making safer choices – but it might be deeply traumatising for those students who are affected by the issues, or know someone who is. Educational resources which focus on the choices and behaviours of children – however well-intentioned - can fuel a culture of victim blaming. We are certainly not saying that no resources should be used. But we do advise a cautious approach until there is stronger evidence that these resources have a positive impact, and we highlight the importance of making sure educational resources are delivered by skilled professionals.

The issue of CSE is phenomenally complex. There is no simple solution, or quick fix – there is, however, a wealth of evidence to draw upon, if we are brave enough to reflect on what we think we know and change our approach when the evidence prompts us to.

Local authorities and charities are very used to change; they are constantly trying to evolve and stay abreast of new research, and stay one step ahead of those who seek to abuse our children. We need to do all we can to support those developing national policy to engage openly to innovation and learning; avoiding a blame culture is central to this.

About the author

Dez Holmes is Director of Research in Practice and Research in Practice for Adults. 

Related resources

Working Effectively to Address Child Sexual Exploitation: Evidence Scope 

Children and young people with harmful sexual behaviours: Research Review

Child sexual exploitation: Practice Tool

Young person-centred approaches in CSE - promoting participation and building self-efficacy: Frontline Briefing


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