I already knew that the news was going to break last Wednesday afternoon about the horrific exploitation of so many women and girls in Newcastle. Changing Lives Women’s Services have worked closely with the Police and Social Services since early 2014 to support many of the brave witnesses to report these crimes and cope with a long and traumatic court process. We have been working in a multi-agency hub to reach out to new potential victims and our team have developed strong, trusting and safe relationships with many women involved.

I have known for over three years all about the nature and the extent of the crimes committed by this group of men, and so I wasn’t expecting to feel so absolutely devastated when Operation Sanctuary hit the news.   

But I did, and so did our team.

Laura McIntyre and I set up the women’s service 10 years ago in Newcastle for women with experience of sex work and sexual exploitation in a city where the reality of life for a group of vulnerable women was hidden, misunderstood or denied.  We carried out peer research where we trained a small group of the women in basic research and they interviewed 86 of their peers who had similar experiences.  They told us about sexual violence as something to be expected; poor mental health, for many, linked to homelessness and addiction; and almost always women had experienced childhood abuse.  Trauma was a feature of their lives in each and every case.

Operation Sanctuary has triggered us to reflect back on their lives, and the lives of so many women who have used our services since.  What we did not know at the time or for many years was that their vulnerabilities were being exploited through a network of men who were organised around grooming young women and girls, rather than individuals operating alone.

Whilst we absolutely need to explore the networks and cultural, religious and ethnic identities of the perpetrators (and I sincerely hope that these discussions can be opened up when the pattern across the country is so blatantly clear), I also want to pull our attention back to the victims of this case.

Operation Sanctuary is about more than race and culture.  It is also about violence against women and girls and it is about class, and it holds a mirror up to all of us to look at how young women and girls are treated within our communities.

These women and girls are targeted because of their vulnerabilities.  Many have experienced a level of abuse that is unimaginable; and the subsequent trauma is not validated – there is no-one who is listening, believing, caring or giving healthy love and attention.  As Zoe Lodrick says, love is like water – a necessity of life.  When we are really thirsty we will drink any water – however dirty.  So for the young women and girls the attention from these men is better than none.  They form an attachment which is stronger than we can imagine and exploitation is an alien concept.

This reality is all of our collective responsibility.  How do women and girls slip through the net where it is normal for them to be sitting on a bench on Westgate Road in pyjamas at midnight?   Is it because so many of the Sanctuary victims are adults that we fail to recognise their vulnerability?  Women with such histories do not wake up on their 18th birthday to suddenly make a ‘rational choice’ to sell sex.

When we started the service at Changing Lives, there were only three women who had disclosed experiences of sexual exploitation or sex work.  We established a drop-in and it grew quickly, just from word of mouth.  I was shocked that so many of the women who came along were so well known to services – but rarely engaging with any.  Why?  Because on the surface many of the women develop a ‘front’ which is brash, strong, wild and challenging for services to manage.  I have countless memories of negative labels, disregard and judgement used about the women we support, which sadly continues to this day.  Too often there is a false perception of ‘vulnerability’ which – on the face of it – so many women and girls do not fit into.  Maybe they are not seen as ‘deserving victims’.

I love their attitude, their spirit and resilience.  And I know that when we scratch the surface we find a gentle soul who is trying to manage life after years of rejection and abuse.  Our team learned very quickly that if we provide support that is loving, trusted and with unshaking respect, the bravado fades away and we see a group of the most mutually supportive, big-hearted, funny and, quite frankly, amazing women.

One of the women we have supported through trial sent her support worker Luisa from our Changing Lives team this text midway through the hearing.  This individual is so very brave, but what I also see is that her trauma can be validated and her life can change just from small acts of kindness, by seeing her strengths and through unconditional positive regard.

“Your existence gives me hope. Your kindness makes me smile. You’ve opened my eyes, my heart, to realise the beauty in life despite all the horrible things in it. Your inner beauty shines through your smile, and your laugh. The way you brighten my day puts the sun to shame. You walked into my life to help me and I am thankful you are there, because you are my inspiration. You’ve inspired me to try my best, find my strength and live happily, because life’s too short to worry about the bad things, when the good things are right in front of you. I couldn’t imagine not having you as support, you’re not just my worker you are my friend and my hero too. You’re one in a million Luisa, thank you for everything”

Laura Seebohm, Director at Changing Lives