Child criminal exploitation is not comprehensively understood by practitioners in all agencies across the safeguarding partnership in Northumberland, a joint targeted area inspection has found.
Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission, HMI Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services and HMI Probation carried out a joint inspection of the multi-agency response to children experiencing or at risk of sexual exploitation and those experiencing or at risk of criminal exploitation in Northumberland in June this year.
The report found that while training is in place, it has not yet had a consistent impact on practice which means that exploitation, other than child sexual exploitation, may not be recognised or responded to.
"In some cases, children’s records showed that practitioners viewed children’s behaviour as part of a lifestyle choice. This limits their ability to see children as victims of exploitation," said the report.
The JTAI included an evaluation of the multi-agency ‘front door’ that was particularly focused on children at risk of sexual or criminal exploitation. Also included was a ‘deep dive’ focus on this vulnerable group of children, where these issues were known to be of concern.
It highlighted that the safeguarding agencies in Northumberland demonstrate a strong commitment to working together to safeguard children. They have made changes in response to findings from previous inspections, including Ofsted’s focused visit in February 2018, which looked at the effectiveness of the front door arrangements to protect children.
A specialist child sexual exploitation worker based in the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) has had a positive impact on practitioners’ understanding of and response to the risk of sexual exploitation. The recognition of and response to children at risk of sexual exploitation is embedded in practice in Northumberland.
"However, the understanding of other forms of child exploitation is limited. Multi-agency training has not yet had a consistent impact on improving practice. Screening tools are not yet fully effective in identifying risks of child exploitation," the report said.
Partners acknowledge, however, that they are at the start of their journey to understand the prevalence and risk of child criminal exploitation in the area and that, while they have processes in place to ensure individual children are safeguarded, more needs to be done at a strategic level to further develop plans.
The JTAI highlights that:
- The MASH has effective systems in place which ensure that new concerns about children are responded to in a timely manner.
- Daily multi-agency meetings in the MASH ensure timely information-sharing and analysis of risk.
- Child protection (section 47) enquiries are prompt and social workers see children alone.
- Northumberland Safeguarding Children Board undertakes regular multi-agency audits and receives a wide range of performance data.
- Children who require therapeutic support receive a timely response from the sexual abuse service, with positive engagement and focus on building children’s emotional resilience.
- Information-sharing agreements between most of the safeguarding partner agencies enable appropriate exchange to inform plans and work together to protect children from exploitation.
- All general practices and schools in Northumberland routinely receive information through Operation Endeavour, an initiative about children who are missing.
- The missing, slavery, exploitation and trafficking group (MSET) has been in place since March 2019 and aims to provide a structured response, through the sharing of information, to reducing the risk of all forms of child exploitation.
- Effective targeted work on disruption has included a focus on the night-time economy, including hotels and fast food outlets.
- The partnership has involved children in the development of innovative approaches to promoting public awareness of child sexual exploitation.
- Probation officers are linked to the local gangs strategy and use intelligence to identify escalating risk and to develop disruption tactics.
The JTAI highlights areas for improvement in terms of child sexual exploitation and
criminal exploitation. It states that the need for an intelligence profile of the criminal exploitation of children has recently been identified by leaders in the partnership and commissioned by the police. The child sexual exploitation profile needs to be updated and this means that the ability of the partnership to understand the extent of child criminal exploitation in Northumberland is currently limited.
The partnership has recently refreshed its strategy on child sexual exploitation to include criminal exploitation. However, the strategy and accompanying action plan are underdeveloped and are not informed by an up-to-date profile which means that resources may not be sufficiently aligned to tackling child exploitation.
The complex needs of children who offend because of child sexual exploitation and/or criminal exploitation are not sufficiently recognised or planned for in the refreshed strategy and action plan. For a small number of children seen on inspection, not all opportunities to consider alternative actions to criminalisation were taken.
Practitioners’ understanding of child criminal exploitation is underdeveloped with very few social workers having accessed NSCB multi-agency training. Although they had received the seven-minute briefings, unlike practitioners in other agencies, they had not all read these.
The MASH receives referrals from partner agencies through a variety of formats, meaning there is no single consistent approach. This means that trigger factors that present when a child is at risk of exploitation may be missed. In some cases, referrals from the probation service failed to analyse risks posed by an adult to the child.
Strategy discussions are not always held when risks of increasing harm have been identified in terms of concerns referred to children’s social care about children who are already known to them. This means that opportunities are missed for partners to share information, and for this to be used to inform planning to reduce the risks for children. When strategy meetings are held, they do not always clearly identify the rationale for decision-making, and actions to keep children safe are not always sufficiently explicit.
Assessments where exploitation is a factor are mostly timely, however, they are of a variable quality with some not including sufficient consideration of wider family and community networks.
The outcomes of meetings such as strategy meetings, MSET, core groups and MASH daily meetings are not always sufficiently clear or visible on children’s records.
The MSET processes also require further development to ensure that all children are identified when they are at risk of criminal exploitation. Not all practitioners are able to fully identify the risk of child criminal exploitation, and this is impacting on their ability to complete the screening tool. A focus on the risk of child sexual exploitation means that some children who may be at risk from other forms of exploitation are scored as being at a low risk of harm, the report warns.
When children display harmful sexual behaviour, this does not always prompt the initiation of the MSET process because the management of the case is considered in terms of harm posed to other children rather than the harm the child may be experiencing themselves.
"Not all practitioners across the partnership understood that any child may be at risk of exploitation, not just those who score highly on vulnerability checklists. This means that early warning signs may not be noticed for those children who do not have existing vulnerabilities," the report concluded.
Joint targeted area inspection of the multi-agency response to child exploitation in Northumberland