Today is exactly 12 months on from the publication of the Spicer report, the serious case review following exploitation of vulnerable children and adults in Newcastle and Operation Sanctuary. At such a pivotal time, Laura Seebohm, Executive Director for Innovation and Policy, reflects on the impact of the report over the past year.

The report highlighted that the establishment of Operation Sanctuary by Northumbria Police was ‘victim led’.  Significantly, Spicer highlighted the fact that most of the victims were adults and that women and girls were targeted and groomed because of their existing vulnerabilities rather than age.

Previously it had been the case that compassion for victims of sexual exploitation stopped when women reach the age of 18; at this point they were seen as making poor decisions with a lack of understanding of consent.

Anyone working to support women in these circumstances knows very well that the impact of sexual exploitation on the ability to develop healthy relationships, or to foster any grain of self-worth is severely damaged, whatever age the woman is.

The report made a wide range of specific local and national recommendations and it was explicitly intended to influence responses to sexual exploitation across the country. As highlighted by Pat Ritchie, Chief Executive at Newcastle City Council ‘if you do not recognise sexual exploitation in your area, it is because you are not looking hard enough’.

A year on and it is the duty of all organisations who might have some responsibility for safeguarding women and girls at risk of sexual exploitation to reflect on how they have implemented these recommendations.

I do not believe that there has been anywhere near the attention required.  Despite considerable pressure from our local MPs Chi Onwurah and Catherine McKinnell, there has been a lack of meaningful response at a national level.

The alarming reality is that these cases continue to occur in our towns and cities across the country.

What does this mean for Changing Lives teams who support women in a multi-agency sexual exploitation hub with our colleagues from the Police and Social Services?  We continue to learn about the long term impact of these crimes.

  • The impact of victims going through the courts system cannot be underestimated and further exacerbates trauma
  • As women build trust with our support workers, they talk more about the extent of exploitation and how the perpetrators operate which is truly horrific
  • Victims experience ongoing fear of repercussions from perpetrators
  • The impact on their lives can be devastating. We support women who are unable to care for their children due to factors which relate directly to their victimisation. We support women who experience long-term mental ill health and use substances to manage the emotional pain
  • Recovery is not a ‘quick fix’ – the women we work with need and deserve long term support. In many cases this is best done by the voluntary community sector as we are able to reach out and engage women who may be mistrustful of various professions
  • Therapeutic approaches are required by staff who understand trauma
  • Attention must be given to community reintegration, building new social networks and opportunities so women can lead the life they should have had

It remains the case that the charities providing this support lack any secure long term funding as budget cuts place pressure on our local authorities. Whilst Changing Lives have ongoing support from our Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria, Dame Vera Baird, this is not replicated for many organisations supporting women in similar situations in other areas.

Since the Spicer report was published we hear of further cases which almost exactly mirror Operation Sanctuary, in Stockton, Sheffield and Huddersfield.  We know there will be others.

Despite the unprecedented convictions achieved on 18 offenders in Newcastle, perpetrators continue to target women and girls with vulnerabilities for purposes of sexual exploitation in towns and cities across the country.

I would urge our policymakers at local and national level to review the Spicer Report recommendations and reflect on whether as much progress has been made as it should.

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