Today (March 18) is National Child Exploitation Awareness Day, where we join organisations around the country in raising awareness of the issues surrounding child exploitation (CE) and child sexual exploitation (CSE).
We applaud the work of organisations fighting against this horrendous form of abuse, seeking to identify children who are being exploited or who are at risk and ending it as soon as possible. But this is not an easy task, and many children reach the age of 18 and the abuse and exploitation continues. Unfortunately, in these cases, the support offered drops off because they are now considered an adult who can make their own choices and ‘consent’ to sexual activity. We see attitudes changing – whereas before they were seen as a vulnerable child being exploited, they are now more likely to be seen as making ‘risky choices’, ‘choosing’ to return to their abuser, or ‘consenting’ to engage in sexual activity or sex work.
Changing Lives has for many years supported adult women who have been groomed and sexually exploited. For the majority of women we support, experiences of trauma and abuse started in childhood but the level of support that they received from statutory services reduced once they turned 18. There is wide variation between local authorities in transition pathways from children to adult safeguarding services. Not only does this create a postcode lottery in terms of the quality of support received, but it makes it challenging for specialist services to navigate the system.
Perpetrators know this and we have seen cases where they will target 17/18-year-olds who appear much younger in both looks and behaviour, knowing that they will be more likely to get away with it because the protection is not there. We have witnessed many women and girls being repeatedly targeted throughout their life.
It is here that we often see a lack of understanding. When we talk about adult survivors of sexual exploitation, we are not just talking about women who were exploited as children who are now coming to terms with the trauma as adults. We are talking about women where the exploitation and abuse continues and becomes increasingly embedded from childhood into adulthood.
We want exploitation to be addressed at the earliest opportunity, so on Child Exploitation Awareness Day we want to support all the work done with children – you can access more information and resources here. But we also want to raise awareness of the fact that these children will become adults, but no less deserving of support and protection.