Today sees the publication of the Joint Serious Case Review into sexual exploitation in Newcastle upon Tyne, following the victimisation of vulnerable women and girls on a large scale across the city, known as Operation Sanctuary. Changing Lives have supported 33 women involved in this case throughout Tyneside. We support women with similar experiences in our services across the North and Midlands.
It is likely that the publication of this important review will bring this case to the forefront once again. We all remember vividly the headlines during the summer of 2017 when 18 of the perpetrators were brought to justice at Newcastle Crown Court. It is to be welcomed that public awareness will again be raised today in the reporting of this important review.
However, the impact on women who were subjected to ongoing exploitation over a series of years continues relentlessly and – we know – will devastate their lives for years to come.
The Serious Case Review highlights this and stresses the need for ongoing support to be provided.
But we need to be aware that – as things stand – there is no resource for long term support for all the victims/survivors of Sanctuary and women with similar experiences in Newcastle, or indeed other towns and cities across the country.
We have already seen this for some of the women who bravely testified again perpetrators who operated within a similar network of grooming and abuse in Rotherham; the long term prospects for women are not good. Some now sell sex on-street; a number are now part of a revolving door in and out of prison. So they are now viewed and treated as ‘offenders’.
“As things stand there is no resource for long term support for all the victims/survivors of Sanctuary and women with similar experiences in Newcastle, or indeed other towns and cities across the country.”
Is this really how we are going to treat these women who have gone through months of police interviews and court hearings being torn apart by defence, in order that further victims are prevented? How is this happening?
Statutory responsibility to support victims of sexual exploitation stops when women reach the age of 18. Everyone would, rightly, expect children are safeguarded and protected, and our systems and processes are set up to respond.
However, over half the victims of Operation Sanctuary were over 18. Unless safeguarding adult criteria is met, which is often not the case, there is absolutely no such duty of care for on-going protection or long-term support for these women.
This is not an intentional act of omission by any individuals, local authorities or government departments. Existing systems have never been designed or set up to provide support for adult women with multiple vulnerabilities and needs.
Despite the fact that there is an abundance of evidence to demonstrate that women selling sex, women in the criminal justice system, women who are homeless, women with mental health problems, women using drugs and alcohol, have overwhelmingly experienced sexual exploitation and abuse, there is no statutory responsibility to make amends when we have failed to protect them during childhood. They do not fall into any of the commissioning or strategic silos; it is no single department’s responsibility to respond or to resource.
The lack of provision is further exacerbated when women stop being identified in terms of their vulnerabilities and start to be seen as the problem.
Stereotypes and stigma around women selling sex is palpable; few people ask at what point they moved from being sexually exploited to becoming sex workers once they reached adulthood.
“The fact is that compassion for victims of sexual exploitation seems to stop when women reach the age of 18; despite the fact that anyone working to support women in these circumstances know very well that the impact on their capacity to develop healthy relationships, or to foster any grain of self-worth at all is so severely damaged through these experiences. “
For these women, notions of choice and consent must be questioned, but all too often we see them pigeon-holed as offenders, drug-addicted prostitutes, and avoided by mainstream services who struggle to manage the complexity of their needs.
The fact is that compassion for victims of sexual exploitation seems to stop when women reach the age of 18; despite the fact that anyone working to support women in these circumstances know very well that the impact on their capacity to develop healthy relationships, or to foster any grain of self-worth at all is so severely damaged through these experiences.
And despite the positive response by police and authorities in responding to the victims of Sanctuary, these cases continue to appear. Last month some of us saw an article, this time in the Independent on 16th January 2018, reporting on yet another gang of men who have allegedly been trafficking women around northern England to be exploited and used for sex, sometimes for profit and sometimes not. This time it did not even hit the headlines. Maybe we are becoming immune to these reports which demonstrate repeated patterns of exploitation experienced by women with the same histories and circumstances. Why is this not a priority on local and national policy level?
We welcome the Serious Case Review’s recommendation for an urgent national debate to respond to the long term needs of women and girls who have been systemically groomed for sexual exploitation at any age.
We want to contribute to a robust challenge of the fact that there is no resource for long term trauma-informed therapeutic and practical support. It is not acceptable that the long term outcomes for this group of women are so poor.
Changing Lives will be raising awareness of this for International Women’s Day and at the Community Foundation Women’s lunch in March, and nationally with our partner organisations supporting women and girls over the coming year.