Child sexual exploitation and community safety

Helen Beckett (The International Centre: Researching Child Sexual Exploitation, Violence and Trafficking, University of Bedfordshire, Luton, Bedfordshire, United Kindom.)
Jenny Pearce (The International Centre: Researching Child Sexual Exploitation, Violence and Trafficking, University of Bedfordshire, Luton, Bedfordshire, United Kindom.)

Safer Communities

ISSN: 1757-8043

Article publication date: 12 January 2015



Beckett, H. and Pearce, J. (2015), "Child sexual exploitation and community safety", Safer Communities, Vol. 14 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Child sexual exploitation and community safety

Article Type: Guest editorial From: Safer Communities, Volume 14, Issue 1

This Special Edition on child sexual exploitation (CSE) comes at a time of ever increasing concern about the many ways in which this abuse is impacting our communities across the UK. Early March saw a high-profile Downing Street summit on the issue, with another serious case review released the very same day. Both highlighted the need for a more effective response to tackling the issue. Those working within the field of community safety clearly have a critical role to play in this, as part of a holistic multi-sectoral response to the issue.

In the first paper of this Special Edition co-authors Sukhwant Dhaliwal, Kate D’Arcy and Roma Thomas pose a series of pertinent questions around what community means in the context of CSE, and how alternative discourses around community can undermine or enhance our capacity to effectively tackle CSE within this setting. The authors also provide an overview of some existing learning around approaches to awareness-raising of CSE in communities, highlighting the need to consider community dynamics when designing community-based responses to the issue.

A critique emerging from recent research into CSE is on the way that children and young people are invariably blamed and held responsible for the abuse they have received. Research has also argued that rather than place the onus on the child to report abuse, we should equip practitioners and others within communities to recognise the signs that a child is being exploited and act accordingly.

The second and third papers in this edition both draw on retrospective studies of child sexual abuse with adults, to focus on the issue of “disclosure” and how this could be better facilitated within our communities. Nadia Marie Wager considers the reasons why children may not report their experiences of child sexual abuse, identifying five key reasons for non-disclosure – lack of opportunity, normalisation of the abuse, embarrassment, concern for others and a sense of hopelessness. Exploring the silencing effects of these issues, she draws out critical learning for more effective facilitation of disclosure of CSE and other forms of child sexual abuse in the future.

Recognising the existing low levels of disclosure – and consequent low levels of access to formal sources of support – Debra Sue Allnock’s paper explores the importance of friends as a source of support for children and young people experiencing sexual abuse, both prior to and post disclosure. Responding to the critical role of friendship support in practice, the author considers the ways in which we can better support children and young people to support their friends. Both papers argue for a critical appraisal of the notion of “disclosure” and refer to other existing research in this field.

Core to all of these debates is how communities help to keep children and young people safe. The next paper by Lucie Elizabeth Shuker draws on learning from an in-depth qualitative evaluation of specialist foster placements for sexually exploited or trafficked young people. Shuker argues that safety for young people is a complex concept that depends upon a number of factors including the presence of both a physical and a relational element. Drawing on evidence from the evaluation, she explores the meaning of “successful” placements for children and young people as ones where stable relationships are of central importance.

Recognising the need to explore creative means of engagement with young people around CSE, Claire Cody’s paper explores the learning that can be drawn from the use of arts-based interventions with similarly vulnerable groups. Whilst recognising the challenges it may entail, Cody highlights a range of potential benefits that could be associated with greater use of arts-based engagements within the field of CSE, both for young people themselves and for wider community engagement with the issue.

The final paper – written by Nicola Jane Sharp – considers challenges associated with the definition and categorisation of the multiple problems experienced by some children and young people. She looks at the links between forced marriage, running away/going missing and CSE. Drawing on her doctoral research, Sharp considers the ways in which community responses can escalate or offset the risks for young people experiencing these issues. This includes the ways in which community responses can influence young people’s help seeking behaviours, parents’ responses to concerns and their propensity to seek external support, all of which are recognised to be critical elements of an effective response.

Whilst diverse in their particular focus, clear commonalities can be drawn from the commentaries presented within the papers included in this Special Edition. The messages contained therein align with those emerging from other research being undertaken by the editors and other researchers at The International Centre: Researching Child Sexual Exploitation, Violence and Trafficking at The University of Bedfordshire, and their counterparts in other institutions.

First, we need to view community safety, and our response to CSE within this, through a child-centred lens. Children and young people experience communities in very different ways to adults in terms of patterns of power and influence, and their status within this. Children and young people may also be negotiating many different communities simultaneously – the geographical community within which their home is based, their school community and multiple online and offline communities of peers. Recognition of this is critical when considering activities and interventions aimed at reaching into communities to prevent and respond to CSE and other forms of sexual violence and abuse.

Following from this, the papers raise the need for a critical appraisal of how and who to approach when accessing communities to prevent or address CSE-related issues. They question whether routes into local communities via community leaders are effective without an assessment of the power and potential abuse of power held by these leaders. These papers also highlight the importance of a full recognition of the heterogeneity of children and young people’s experiences and the ways in which their individual biographies are impacted by gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, class, poverty and disadvantage. All such factors can influence children and young people’s exposure to CSE, their engagement with preventative messaging within their communities and their ability to access and utilise available protective measures.

As is increasingly argued in this work and elsewhere, an effective response to CSE also requires a conceptual shift in our understanding of safeguarding that extends our traditional conceptualisation of abuse beyond younger children and the family home to recognise risk in adolescence and non-familial environments. This must be accompanied by a recognition that adolescents, the primary risk group for this form of abuse, require a different response to younger children; one that simultaneously recognises, and manages to reconcile, their increasing maturity and capacity and their continued need for protection. By extension, safeguarding must extend into all communities surrounding the older child as they make the transition from child to adult.

In summary, this edition notes the importance of the young person’s voice: of listening to the child or young person to gain an understanding of how they understand and experience their communities surrounding them. Critical to this is the meaningful engagement of children and young people in the design and evaluation of our preventative and responsive initiatives. Research consistently shows that when facilitated appropriately children and young people are both willing and able to articulate what works and doesn’t work for them. Prioritising learning from children and young people as intended recipients of CSE prevention is absolutely vital to improving the effectiveness of our messaging and support. Only then will all engaged with community safety appreciate how children and young people understand CSE and engage with meaningful preventative community initiatives.

Helen Beckett and Jenny Pearce

About the Guest editors

Dr Helen Beckett is the Deputy Director of The International Centre: Researching Child Sexual Exploitation, Violence and Trafficking at the University of Bedfordshire. The Centre was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary for Further and Higher Education in 2013, for its pioneering research into child sexual exploitation. Helen has been working as a children’s rights researcher for over 15 years across the voluntary and statutory sectors and more recently within academia. Her specialism includes sexual exploitation, sexual violence and wider child protection concerns. Helen has published widely and regularly consults on research, policy and practice in this field.

Dr Jenny Pearce is a Professor of Young People and Public Policy at the University of Bedfordshire, UK, where she is the Director of the International Centre: Researching Child Sexual Exploitation, Violence and Trafficking. She is Co-founder of the NWG Network: Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation and the UK Child Sexual Exploitation Research Forum. She is currently a Panel Member of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse within the Family Environment. She has worked as a member of the Policy Steering Committee of “Eurochild” and Co-chair of their reference group on child participation; been a rapporteur with the Council of Europe “One in Five” Campaign to stop sexual violence against children and is currently overseeing the work of a number of research projects focusing on preventing sexual violence against children. These include The “Our Voices” Project: an Oak Foundation and University of Bedfordshire funded European Network promoting children’s participation in preventing sexual violence. She is developing a UNESCO University Twinning and Network Scheme focusing on international efforts to prevent sexual violence against children. She is an Associate Editor with the journals Youth and Policy and Child Abuse Review.

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