The STAGE Project

Time and again we hear of cases of systematic grooming of girls and women for purposes of sexual exploitation by groups of men operating across our towns and cities. The exploitation and abuse of women and girls, who are often living with existing vulnerabilities, causes significant harm in our communities.

Early in 2019, six specialist women’s organisations joined in partnership to access funding from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) Tampon Tax Fund to explore and highlight the nature and extent of sexual exploitation of adult women who have been targeted and groomed from a young age.

A Way Out, Basis, Changing Lives, GROW, Together Women and WomenCentre were all keen to enhance our capacity to provide much-needed long term holistic support to this group of women. The partnership was built around those places where there are existing or recent operations into sexual exploitation: Newcastle and Sunderland; Huddersfield, Rotherham, Leeds, Stockton, Sheffield and Bradford, as well as reaching women in HMP Low Newton and HMP New Hall.

Despite numerous reports and serious case reviews, sexual exploitation continues to occur on a regular basis, even though we now rarely hear about it in the media. When we do, media focus is often placed solely on narratives of white girls being exploited by groups of South Asian men; this obscures a complex reality of the picture we see. What the reports and reviews do highlight with alarming regularity, are:

  • Missed opportunities to identify and protect victims and bring perpetrators to justice.
  • Devastating long term impacts on the lives of women well into adulthood which means that we cannot confine our responses to children; over 50% of survivors identified through Operation Sanctuary in Newcastle upon Tyne were over 18.

Our aim is to shine a light on the nature and extent of sexual exploitation as we see it happening in our communities and to call for a national response which sees these crimes as systemic and systematic rather than confined to local pockets of poor practice and as cases which have ‘slipped through the net’.

Who we support

Our partnership supports women whilst they are involved with investigations, through the process of giving evidence to trials. We continue to provide support after trials have concluded as women start to rebuild their lives. We also continue to support the high number of women who are not involved with trials and do not wish to report these crimes.

We reach out to women who might not usually access support and seek out those who are too often ignored or excluded. Our model is trauma-responsive, providing one-to-one support through a consistent, trusting relationship with a named keyworker who provides longer-term unconditional positive regard for each woman we support. We create safe spaces for peer interaction and support (where appropriate), including drop-ins and providing therapeutic group work focused on overcoming trauma.

It’s important to stress that that (despite the narrative that has played out in the media) the STAGE project supports women and girls from different ethnic backgrounds, as well as those who have been exploited by individual perpetrators. We know that grooming and sexual exploitation can be carried out by men and women, in groups or on their own, and can affect anyone regardless of ethnicity or background.

What we’ve learnt so far

As partners, we come together on a regular basis to talk, share knowledge and work in solidarity against the horrific experiences of the women we support.   What we have found so far across our partnership is wide-reaching and tells us there is still much to do:

  • Transition from childhood to adulthood – the long-term life trajectory for women we work with shows the devastating and long-lasting impact of sexual exploitation, starting in childhood and continuing into adulthood; described as ‘trauma upon trauma upon trauma’.
  • The impact of grooming – the psychological, emotional and financial impact of grooming is similar to that of coercive control: women are increasingly dependent on their perpetrators including the fact that too often they have nowhere else to go because fleeing sexual exploitation is not treated as priority in our homelessness legislation and does not meet the thresholds of emergency accommodation.
  • Victim blaming – the women we support are often seen as the offender rather than the survivor, despite the fact that they continue to be exploited by a series of perpetrators into adulthood. We see women in the revolving door of our criminal justice system, selling sex on the street, dependent on alcohol and drugs and with children removed from their care. These are women who have been systematically failed since childhood and who are repeatedly punished for the very fact that they are abused and violated on a regular basis.
  • Perpetrators target women who are living with existing vulnerabilities – those who are less likely to report and – more importantly – less likely to be deemed as credible witnesses are targeted deliberately. This has been exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic: we have seen reports of sexual violence by a series of perpetrators increase at alarming rates.
  • Our justice system is re-traumatising – women who are witnesses in court cases to bring perpetrators to justice find the experience highly traumatic. It is common for cases to collapse and evidence is torn apart with little understanding of the impact of trauma on our ability to recall exact details, times and locations.
  • The realities of exploitation is sanitised – staff who support women believe that the system attempts to sanitise what women have experienced, downplaying the violence that is so often involved, through the language used.

However, where we see examples our statutory partners actively supporting us and sharing our commitment to challenge and disrupt, we see fantastic outcomes for the women we support.

By the end of this project we will share these great examples of partnership and collaboration to be used across all local areas. We will develop a toolkit to share on the learning of the partnership; giving clear examples of best practice for multi-agency strategic and operational responses which can be embedded in our safeguarding and policing culture, practices and systems.

A National Response

At a national level, we strive to raise awareness of these patterns of exploitation and ensure that learning is embedded across relevant government departments. There is currently no statutory definition of adult sexual exploitation and no specific statutory responsibilities. As a result there is no coordinated national strategy. The impacts of this are: an inconsistent approach to commissioning of services; lack of long-term sustainable funding; lack of oversight and sense of urgency for responding to learning from serious case reviews and other investigations; and ultimately a failure to provide support for survivors of sexual exploitation.

We have been overwhelmed by the fantastic contribution of influential supporters to raise awareness and improve policy at a national level. Chaired by Jess Phillips MP, Shadow Domestic Violence and Safeguarding Minister, a group of experts have come together, including Dame Louise Casey (homelessness tsar); Caroline Nokes MP (Chair of the Commons Women and Equalities Committee); Baroness Hilary Armstrong (Chair of the Lords Committee on Public Services); MPs Chi Onwurah, Catherine McKinnell, Sarah Champion and Louise Haigh; Kate Davies OBE, Director at NHS England; Cris McCurley, Human Rights Lawyer; Rosie Lewis (Angelou Centre for BAME women); and Professor Jo Phoenix (Open University).

We would like to see:

  • A new national framework for safeguarding adults from sexual exploitation, under the remit of the Minister for Safeguarding and Vulnerability within the Home Office.
  • That the framework is inclusive of BAME women and girls who have experienced sexual exploitation, and actively challenges systematic issues which lead to inequalities in access to services for black women, women from other racialized ethnicities, and women seeking asylum or refugee status.
  • Adult sexual exploitation recognised as a systemic issue and viewed comparably with other system issues such as County Lines, rather than an issue of local practice.
  • APCC guidelines updated to reflect the serious nature of adult sexual exploitation as a systematic and sometimes organised crime.

Each organisation within this partnership would be delighted to talk to you further about the work we are doing, including local intelligence and context across the areas where we work. We will be holding a national conference or a series of webinars (depending on government safety guidelines) at the start of 2021 to share our toolkit and findings and make a clear call for our policy actions to be heard.

Sarah McManus, CEO A Way Out

Gemma Scire, CEO BasisLeeds

Laura Seebohm, Executive Director at Changing Lives

Joanna Jones, CEO GROW

Rokaiya Khan, CEO Together Women

Angela Everson, CEO WomenCentre

The STAGE Project is funded by the Tampon Tax Fund, to provide support for women groomed for sexual exploitation.

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