This Childhood Exploitation Awareness Day, we want to highlight the long-lasting impact of childhood sexual exploitation (CSE) on girls and women, which is often made worse due to a systemic failure for the transition from Children’s Services into Adult Social Care.

Whilst early intervention is crucial, we find for many girls the impact of trauma remains and has a profound impact throughout adulthood. Therefore, when a child reaches her 18th birthday, in many cases her life circumstances have not changed apart from that she is now, legally, an adult. This change in legal status impacts on the services (and in some cases, the understanding and empathy) that she has access to.

The STAGE Project brings together charities Changing Lives, GROW, A WAY OUT, Together Women, Basis and WomenCentre (Kirklees and Calderdale) to provide trauma-informed support for women and girls who have been groomed for sexual exploitation across the North East and Yorkshire.

Across the STAGE partnership we have seen how young women lose the support they have previously received when transitioning from children’s to adult social services, even when risk levels have not changed. Additionally, while the Department for Education have responsibility for those in the care of the local authority, we know there is a lack of policy focus on young people more broadly. Our partners are aware of many young people who are invisible to this system of protection and therefore remain exposed to exploitation and the impact of trauma.

The long-lasting impact of trauma in childhood is well documented. It continues to impact women after the age of transition, when they may be unprepared for the responsibilities that come with adulthood. As one STAGE case worker commented: “Who has taught these girls about the world and about relationships? It’s their abusers- they have little understanding about what is acceptable in a relationship and so many of them fall into further abusive relationships as adults.” It has also been noted by many of the caseworkers in STAGE that once women turn 18, their experiences are described as “making poor decisions” or that they are sex working, whereas as children they were seen as being exploited. Adult Social Services often do not have time to engage with these women flexibly and continuously, meaning relationships break down.

This is clearly demonstrated in the serious case review conducted after the death of a 19-year-old woman (K), from Doncaster, which highlighted issues around the reduction in support given when she became a legal adult. Before K’s 18th birthday there were concerns that she was involved in a sexually exploitative relationship with a much older man (B). Despite this, after she turned 18, safeguarding meetings stopped. The review found that K had been described as “involved in prostitution” and B was described as her ‘boyfriend’ rather than her perpetrator. K’s case painfully demonstrates the misconception that sexual exploitation and grooming cannot continue in adulthood.

These issues are not limited to a specific town or city. While there are pockets of good practice in the areas we work (for example, through multi-agency safeguarding hubs or individual good practice), STAGE partners have all had experiences of a lack of understanding and safeguarding from statutory services. The result is a postcode lottery for women and girls experiencing sexual exploitation, leading to further harm and trauma.

The STAGE partnership is deeply concerned at the national lack of consideration of this transitional period. Furthermore, there is no national framework to guide responses to – or even a definition of – adult sexual exploitation. We are working alongside others to try and change this. You can read our full briefing on the age of transition here. In it, we recommend that nationally:

  • The Government create a National Framework for Adult Survivors of Sexual Exploitation, led by the Home Office, which should include a statutory definition of adult sexual exploitation.
  • A new duty on services is created, under the remit of the Minister for Safeguarding, to refer women who disclose historical or ongoing sexual exploitation to specialist sexual exploitation services.

While this is ongoing, we’d also like to see these changes to local policy and practices:

  • Greater commitment to commissioned long-term support for adult survivors of sexual exploitation, which includes specific provision for young people aged 16-18 as their support transitions from children’s into adult safeguarding services.
  • Further investment in training staff within adult safeguarding services to respond more effectively to women experiencing sexual exploitation, using trauma-informed approaches. This should include a recognition that women may continue to need support, even when they have children of their own.
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