Practitioners are not confident in tackling the issue of children being drawn into criminal exploitation, a report has revealed.
A study by The Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel found that even when local areas and practitioners know the children at risk of being drawn into criminal exploitation, many are not confident about what they can do to help them.
There are a number of different approaches being taken across the country but little reliable evidence of what works, and no central point where effective evidence is evaluated and disseminated.
"Recognition of children at risk was not a major obstacle to working with this group. Once identified, finding an effective response to children was much harder to evidence for both the 21 children in the cohort and those in the comparator group," said the report. "The risk of serious harm to children in this situation is well understood and practitioners and leaders are acutely aware of the dangers they face – and that escalation of that risk can be swift and have serious consequences. However, practitioners openly acknowledge that they are still developing services and interventions which can effectively reduce risk-taking behaviour by children who are subject to criminal exploitation."
Children’s services professionals took the lead for co-ordinating services in most cases, but while that often involved a significant number of practitioners working with children, few achieved enough depth or trust to influence their behaviour.
The researchers virtually heard nothing about work to stop or disrupt the activities of the perpetrators of criminal exploitation, although there was one exception in Southend where a disruption and support plan is developed for each child.
However, this was in stark contrast to strategies for child sexual exploitation employed by local areas, where there is often a dual approach to victims and perpetrators. In each of the visits carried out by by researchers, they asked what was happening in the area to tackle the organised crime behind county lines, but very few practitioners knew about any strategies being used.
Tackling county lines and the ‘supply gangs’ responsible for high levels of violence, exploitation and abuse of vulnerable children is a priority for UK law enforcement and there is a recently-developed national co-ordination centre. But currently, information is not routinely or consistently shared with those local agencies or departments within policing who respond to the victims of child criminal exploitation.
The research found that when parents and wider family members were actively involved in the risk management plan, there was evidence of progress. There were also examples of children living with extended family away from their local area when there was high risk.
However, there were more examples of poor relationships between parents and practitioners. Parents felt helpless to control their child’s behaviour and were frustrated by the lack of progress, wanting a more proactive approach to be taken by the local authority. In such cases, practitioners sometimes described parents as ‘not engaging’ and this dynamic between practitioner and parent could spiral downwards and create a barrier to effective working.
Some parents felt that the suggested actions would not make a difference and so chose not to participate, for example, parents reported that they did not see the point of being asked to report to the police that their son was missing every time the child didn’t return at the expected time.
The study found many examples of local authorities moving children and whole families out of the area where the child was considered to be at risk of serious harm and violence. Eight of the 21 children in the cohort were moved - two were looked after children and the others involved either the whole family moving or the child going to stay with another family member. This was seen as a very effective short-term measure, providing an immediate reduction in risk and a breathing space.
However, as a long-term strategy, moving children and whole families was not enough to protect children for a number of reasons, the report found. Two of the children returned to the original areas unbeknown to their families and practitioners and were then attacked and murdered. This confirmed the view that the area was a dangerous place for that young person to be but that simply moving the child or the family does not in itself remove the risk.
Communication remains relatively easy through social media and intensive follow up and monitoring is likely to be needed to ensure children do not drift back to those areas.
Secondly, some children became involved in drug dealing in their new areas. Initially, children were frightened in their new areas, parents reported, and stayed home more often than not, but this wore off after a time and old patterns of behaviour re-emerged.
Thirdly, moving the family inevitably meant the breaking of relationships with practitioners and changes in school. For some families, it meant younger siblings having to change schools and parents facing problems maintaining employment.
"None of that negates the short-term benefits of moving a child away from a locality where they are at risk of serious harm. However, a move must be part of a clear and consistent strategy for protecting and supporting that child if it is to have a longer-term impact. Consideration should be given to the needs of parents and siblings so that other important areas in their lives do not deteriorate," said the report.
Where children’s services did wish to move families quickly, liaison with housing departments proved difficult. A number of practitioners felt that local housing policies should be amended to include children at risk of criminal exploitation as a high priority group for rehousing or transfer. One family moved back to the area to prevent the loss of their right to permanent housing and their son was killed within months.
Some children were assessed as needing care placements to keep them safe in the long term. This review found that suitable, good quality and effective placements for children with this kind of profile are both very hard to source and very expensive when found.
The National Referral Mechanism is a tool for identifying and referring potential victims of modern slavery to the Single Competent Authority in the Home Office so that they can receive the appropriate support. The review found significant confusion about the purpose of the NRM and how it might help. In some areas, there was little or no awareness. Where they knew about it, practitioners saw the NRM as positive in that it treated children as victims rather than offenders and could keep them out of the criminal justice system. An unintended consequence of the application of the NRM was the removal of statutory orders which might have been helping to control the child’s risk-taking behaviour.
The report recommends that the Home Office, in conjunction with key stakeholders, reviews whether the NRM is an effective mechanism for working with children who are being criminally exploited, both in terms of registering the fact of their criminal exploitation and protecting them from prosecution.
The Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel recommends that there is a trial of a practice framework which can respond to children at risk of serious harm from criminal exploitation. There should also be changes to Working Together and inspection regime and it recommends that the Department for Education brings together relevant stakeholders to explore how best to ensure the narrative and requirements of Working Together reflects the risk of harm from outside the home, with a view to agreeing amendments to the current guidance.
Joint work should be undertaken by the Department for Education, the Home Office, the Youth Justice Board, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and the police to agree a simple dataset for local collection, which can be incorporated into existing national data collections, the report adds.
"The safeguarding system is facing organised criminal businesses that are skilled at identifying and entrapping children in their activities. Their business model depends on the exploitation of children, using coercion, control and manipulation to push them into criminal activity," said the report.
"Too many children are dying or suffering serious harm as a result of criminal exploitation and this is unacceptable. Investment in helping to protect this group is essential and urgent. Doing nothing is not an option," the report concluded.
It was hard to escape
Safeguarding children at risk from criminal exploitation