Beneath the bright lights (Children and Young People Now)

Thousands of young people are believed to be sexually exploited each year, yet only one in four local authorities has set up specialist services. Joe Lepper reports on the steps local authorities such as Blackpool Council are taking to prevent sexual abuse.

The disappearance and suspected murder of 14-year-old Charlene Downes in 2003 sent shockwaves through Blackpool.

As police began to investigate Charlene’s disappearance, they discovered that she and a group of friends had been targeted by a group of older men. These men had sex with the girls, sometimes in exchange for cigarettes and food. As the investigation continued, police were convinced Charlene had been sexually abused and murdered.

What also became clear was that there were potentially more young people like Charlene in the area being targeted by sexual predators.

To tackle this the Awaken team was created in 2004 to bring together police, social workers, schools, licensing officers and nurses to target perpetrators, support victims and prevent abuse.

In late November, the project won the Stay Safe prize at the 2009 Children & Young People Now Awards for the work it does in schools and other settings to identify and prevent young people from becoming sexually exploited.

Charlene Downes

In addition to handing out contact cards to young people that feature a hotline phone number, the team targets so called “honeypot” locations such as amusement arcades and shopping centres where men target young people. Some of the cases the team deals with are shocking, admits Awaken manager Andy Shackleton. “Some involve gang rape, abduction or statutory rape and the sentences handed down are life in some cases,” he says.

Protection and prosecution

“We recently had a case concerning the targeting and sexual abuse of paper boys. It was two men who were on the sex offenders’ register. They were successfully prosecuted and because of their background, their crimes and the risk they pose have been given indeterminate sentences,” he adds.

Internet grooming is among the main areas of Awaken’s work. One recent case involved boys being targeted by a man who used software to give the impression that he was an 11-year-old girl. He would get them to commit sexual acts. During the investigation, the Awaken team found that he had around 50 young people on his “buddy” list.

“Something like this involves considerable work in helping the victims to recover from what has happened. This has been far easier for us to manage as the police and social work sides work closely together through Awaken,” says Shackleton.

Among the statistics Shackleton is most proud of is a zero pregnancy rate among the girls the team has helped. “We have a specialist nurse who can talk to young people about sexual health and has helped fit around 50 contraceptive devices.”

Awaken’s prosecution success rate of 96 per cent of cases it deals with is another area of pride. Over the past three years, the team’s efforts have led to 56 prosecutions.

Sadly, the perpetrator of Charlene’s murder and disappearance is not among this list. In 2007, two men stood trial: one accused of her murder and another accused of assisting with the disposal of her body. However, the jury failed to reach a verdict in the first trial and the retrial collapsed. An Independent Police Complaints Commission report criticised the handling of the investigation, which Shackleton says Awaken was not involved with.

While the efforts of the Awaken team have been praised by Barnardo’s, the charity says too few areas have such specialist support. Its report Whose Child Now?, released last month, found that only 20 per cent of local authorities provide any specialist work for sexually exploited children and young people and called for more action to be taken.

But Colin Green, child protection lead for the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and director of children’s services for Coventry, says the report “doesn’t tell the full picture”.

He says: “Councils are offering support to victims of sexual exploitation; it is just they are not labelling it sexual exploitation. Sometimes this is through wider youth programmes or sexual abuse services.”

Specialist teams

Areas such as Coventry, where police and social workers offer support to sex workers, also focus on young victims of prostitution, he adds.

But Lynne Cardwell, deputy children’s services manager for Barnardo’s Sexual Exploited Children’s Outreach Service in Middlesbrough, takes a different view.

“What we found is that you need to have a dedicated team looking at sexual exploitation who can work with all agencies and whose prime concern is this issue. More general services don’t have the expertise to pick up the problem,” she says.

Nick McPartlan is manager of Engage, a sexual exploitation project in Blackburn with Darwen that last month picked up the Integrated Working Award at the Children & Young People Now Awards. He believes specialist teams are needed due to the complexity of the cases.

“Sexual exploitation is often not organised, which makes investigating harder,” he says. “Typically, cases of exploitation start when a young girl is targeted by a man or group of men. The young person thinks they are in a relationship and then they are sexually exploited, perhaps asked to have sex with a number of men,” says McPartlan.

Engage was launched originally as a Lancashire Police operation in 2005 in response to the high number of reports of young runaways being sexually exploited. The team of just a detective and social worker focused on supporting the victims and attempting to prosecute perpetrators, but with 1,220 missing children reports in 2005/6 this was always going to be a struggle.

Then, last year Engage became a multi-agency operation, encompassing a 15-strong team of children’s services, health and voluntary sector workers, including representatives from Barnardo’s and the Coalition for the Removal of Pimping (Crop). Now, on average one perpetrator a week is prosecuted and each week it deals with four referrals. Of these at least half are found to be at risk of sexual exploitation.

“Having a multi-agency team means we can really focus on our core aims of protection, prevention, and the icing on the cake, prosecution,” says McPartlan.

“One case we dealt with recently involved a man who was a semi-professional sportsman living in the area. Police were alerted after he was seen with a young girl in his car. When officers checked his phone they found at least six numbers of girls we were supporting,” he adds.

A core element of its work is prevention and early intervention. Staff from the team go into schools to explain issues such as grooming in personal, social, health and economic education lessons and work closely with young people who are known to regularly run away from home or truant from school.


“Another problem is that the young people do not see themselves as victims or their relationships as involving grooming or exploitation,” says McPartlan. “Many of these young people are under 16 and leave home for a period of time. They are often taken out of the borough, but still live nearby, so it’s also not easy to class it as trafficking in the traditional sense or running away,” he adds.

And it’s not just the young people themselves who need support. Their families can be deeply affected by what has happened to their child.

Last year, a family support worker provided by Crop was added to the Engage team to work with parents. “We were victim focused, but this means we can really specialise in helping parents as well,” says McPartlan.

Sarah Lloyd, senior practitioner at Crop, believes further national research into sexual exploitation is desperately required to discover the true extent of the problem and that clearer targets need to be set.

“Nationally there are performance indicators for councils such as cutting the number of missing children, but nothing that is specific to sexual exploitation,” she says. “Some areas have looked into the issue and gathered figures, some haven’t.”

Crop wants a national performance indicator that requires all police forces to assess and tackle sexual exploitation. “Until something like that happens it is very difficult to know the true extent of the problem and provide good support in all areas,” she adds.

McPartlan also has a warning for councils that don’t think sexual exploitation is an issue in their area. “It happens everywhere,” he says. “Councils that deny it is a problem are misguided.”


There are no national figures relating to sexual exploitation, but Barnardo’s estimated in 2005 that in London alone 1,000 children were at risk

Just 40 out of the 209 councils and children’s trusts with responsibility for producing children and young people plans either commission or run specialist sexual exploitation services for young people

70 per cent of adult sex workers entered prostitution when they were children or young teenagers

Three-quarters of children abused through prostitution regularly truanted from school

Of the 140,000 children and young people who run away from home around 10,000 are hurt while away

Sources: Barnardo’s, Coalition for the Removal of Pimping and The Children’s Society

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