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Involving young people in responding to CSE

04 January 2017

Camille WarringtonCamille Warrington

Participatory practice and supporting young people to influence decisions doesn’t feel easy at the best of times, either individually or collectively. As I’ve learnt from experience, organisational structures, professional responsibilities and resource limitations aren’t always the easiest fit with the time, relationship-based practice and commitment needed to involve children and young people meaningfully in decision-making processes. Additionally, as professionals we don’t always feel skilled and supported to share power and responsibility with those we’re charged to care for. What feels right in principle is harder in practice.

When responding to child sexual exploitation (CSE) things are further complicated by the significance of risk and the relationship to professional’s responsibilities to address this. Difficult questions emerge. For example, is it unfair to involve vulnerable young people in decision-making about their care? What about young people in crisis, when decisions need making quickly? What happens if we bring young people to meetings with professionals and they don’t think they’re being exploited but everyone else does? Additional challenges arise when working at a collective level: can we really bring different young people together in the same room without them posing risks to one another? Are questions about wider service design and delivery helpful or relevant for a young person dealing with complex individual circumstances?

These are valuable questions, underpinned by credible concerns and should be addressed rather than dismissed. However as research with young people shows, we also need to recognise the risks of not involving young people meaningfully in these processes. 

Interviews and consultation with young people who access support for sexual exploitation repeatedly highlight a number of immediate consequences of being sidelined from decision-making about care and support. They describe feeling ‘kept in the dark’, anxious and disempowered (Coy, 2009; AYPH, 2013; Berelowitz et al, 2013; Beckett and Warrington, 2015; Hallett, 2015). They also demonstrate that such practices fuel mistrust, build up young people’s resistance to professional interventions and further compromise their access to protection (Warrington, 2013). 

Perhaps most significantly they explain that, at times, young people’s experiences of engaging with services can mirror the lack of control they feel in exploitative relationships. As a memorable comment from a young woman explains, describing her relationship to the professionals, during a CSE investigation:

‘I was basically a puppet. When they wanted me, I had to do it. When they didn’t want me, I heard nothing’ (‘Gina’ in Beckett and Warrington, 2015: 46) [1].

Young people’s voices are not alone in highlighting these issues, and practitioner’s perspectives share similar concerns. However, both also point to evidence that things can be different. Yes, practice in this area is variable, but there are examples of services where participatory principles are more embedded; professionals have engaged seriously with questions about power sharing and working in partnership with young people, and position them as experts in their own lives (see for example Ofsted, 2013). People are starting to use (and make sense of) the language of ‘rights-based approaches’ within child sexual exploitation services (Berelowitz et al, 2013); to consider ‘harm minimisation approaches’ (Hickle and Hallet, 2016); develop models of formal peer support; and involve young people systematically (and meaningfully) in multi-agency meetings or service development.

Efforts to shift the balance of power within our responses to child sexual exploitation also have the benefit of building on and learning from longstanding traditions of service user involvement and participatory practice in adult social care; work with looked after children; and, more recently, the drive for ‘co-producing’ services. 

At a practice level making this shift requires a move from working to avoid risk (often highly unfeasible) to a consideration of how risks can be properly and realistically managed. Addressing this requires organisational commitment, supportive management, and time for planning, reflection and building relationships. I would also argue that it means adopting a longer view: recognising the therapeutic potential of participatory practices and understanding that when we sideline young people from processes of power and influence we risk perpetuating the exclusion, silencing and inequality of cultures in which abuse grows.


About the author(s)

Dr Camille Warrington is a senior research fellow and lead for young people’s participation in ‘The International Centre: Researching Child Sexual Exploitation, Violence and Trafficking’ at the University of Bedfordshire. A former youth worker, she has extensive experience of undertaking research with children and young people on child sexual exploitation and has developed and facilitated a range of creative, participatory projects to establish safe and meaningful dialogue between young people, policy makers and researchers.  


Related resources

Brodie I (2016) Literature review: the participation of young people in child sexual exploitation services. Luton: University of Bedfordshire.

Hickle K and Hallett S (2016) Mitigating Harm: Considering Harm Reduction Principles in Work with Sexually Exploited Young People. Children & Society 30: 302-313.

Ivory M (2015) Voice of the child: Meaningful engagement with children and young people. Dartington: Research in Practice.

Warrington C (2013b) ‘Partners in care? Sexually exploited young people’s inclusion and exclusion from decision making about safeguarding’ in Melrose M and Pearce J (ed) (2013) Critical Perspectives on Child Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Be Healthy Participation Project: http://www.ayph-behealthy.org.uk/

Standing Tall after feeling small: http://speakoutlancashire.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/16pp-Standing-Tall-leaflet-low-res.pdf

Young person-centred approaches in CSE - promoting participation and building self-efficacy: Frontline Briefing (2017)


References

AYPH (2016) Be Healthy. Available at: http://www.ayph-behealthy.org.uk/

Beckett and Warrington (2015) Making Justice Work: Experiences of criminal justice for children and young people affected by sexual exploitation as victims and witnesses. Luton. University of Bedfordshire

Berelowitz S, Clifton J, MBE CF, et al (2013) If only someone had listened. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups. Final Report. London: Office of the Children’s Commissioner.

Coy, M (2009) 'Moved around like bags of rubbish nobody wants: How multiple placement moves can make young women vulnerable to sexual exploitation'. Child Abuse Review Vol 18 254-266.

Hallett S (2015) 'An Uncomfortable Comfortableness, Care, and Child  Sexual Exploitation’. British Journal of Social Work 1 - 16.

Hickle K and Hallett S (2016) ‘Mitigating Harm: Considering Harm Reduction Principles in Work with Sexually Exploited Young People’. Children & Society 30 302-313.

Ofsted (2013) Involving children and young people in developing the services they receive: Street Safe Lancashire. London: Ofsted. Available at: www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/392119/Lancashire_20County_20Council_20-_20good_20practice_20example.pdf

Warrington C (2013b) ‘Partners in care? Sexually exploited young people’s inclusion and exclusion from decision making about safeguarding’ in Melrose M and Pearce J (ed) (2013) Critical Perspectives on Child Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.



[1] Gina’ in Beckett and Warrington (2015) Making Justice Work: Experiences of criminal justice for children and young people affected by sexual exploitation as victims and witnesses . Luton. University of Bedfordshire (pp 46). 

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