The 29th June 2021 represents a significant day for women experiencing sexual exploitation, and our collective understanding that grooming and abuse does not stop for young women on the day of their 18th birthday.
As leaders of the STAGE partnership, we are so delighted to see how the learning from our 2 year project (funded by Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Tampon Tax Fund) has come together in this toolkit launched at our webinar (which can be downloaded here).
Simultaneously our statutory colleagues, led by the Chief Social Worker for Adults, National Working Group, BASW, ADASS, LGA and Dez Holmes from Research in Practice ( RIP ), are launching a seminal report ‘Transitional Safeguarding and the role of social work with adults’ at an event on the same day (Bridging the Gap: transitional safeguarding and the role of social work with adults – GOV.UK).
The STAGE project brings together charities Changing Lives, GROW, A Way Out, Together Women, Basis and WomenCentre to provide trauma-informed support for women who have been groomed for sexual exploitation across the North East and Yorkshire. We work in towns and cities where there are recent or ongoing sexual exploitation operations into sexual exploitation.
Our aim is to understand more, raise awareness and influence government and public services so we improve our responses to support adult women experiencing sexual exploitation and bring perpetrators to justice. Despite numerous reports and serious case reviews, cases continue to occur on a regular basis, even though we now rarely hear about them in the media.
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; cases which have ‘slipped through the net’.
For the duration of this project we have listened to hundreds of women and heard their experiences in their own words. There are a number of recurring themes and injustices which emerge with alarming regularity:
- Lack of access to the justice system as so many women we work with are deemed not to be ‘credible witnesses’. On the rare occasions when their cases do come to Court their experience of justice exacerbates trauma
- The link between homelessness and women feeling ‘stuck’ in their exploitative situations; women fleeing sexual exploitation are not assessed as priority need for housing
- Evidence of severe health inequalities; we see poor health outcomes and poor experiences of access and treatment across the health service but particularly in relation to mental health and gynaecological procedures
But absolutely at the heart of our work is the longstanding concern felt by each of us within our respective organisations that sexual exploitation does not stop when women reach the age of 18.
- Across the partnership we have seen how young women so often lose the support they have previously received when transitioning from children’s to adult social services, even when risk levels have not changed. Once women turn 18, their experiences are often assumed to be consensual, that they are ‘making risky decisions’ or making a choice to sell sex
As leaders of the STAGE partnership we so welcome this ground breaking Transitional Safeguarding report, and particularly the very clear statement that ‘a person cannot consent to abuse. Having capacity and ‘making unwise decisions’ is not consenting to be abused’.
This is so important; women tell us that perpetrators are well aware of a ‘loophole’ at the age of 18. They openly target women at the transitional age and especially those with additional vulnerabilities who are less likely to be believed by the justice system – those with learning disabilities, drug and alcohol dependence, homelessness, offending and poor mental health.
The report is more than joining up two binary systems of children and adult safeguarding arrangements and expecting young people to move seamlessly across the two. This is about each person being at the centre of what we do. It is about viewing adolescence as a developmental phase, and safeguarding in this context being all about relationships.
This is how we work across the STAGE partnership, as do many fantastic voluntary community sector organisations supporting women and girls experiencing sexual exploitation. We hope that in response to this report, our colleagues from social work teams across the country are inclusive of organisations such as ours in the STAGE partnership. Because it is our experience that, whilst most of our statutory colleagues have a deep understanding of sexual exploitation (as demonstrated in so many examples of best practice in the report), they rarely have the capacity to engage with women as flexibly and continuously as our sector are able to do.
The report launched today has potential to stop women and girls falling through the net. We hope that in turn, our colleagues from adult social work, safeguarding and police will find our toolkit further enhances our collective response. As local areas develop their responses to transitional safeguarding it is important they are listening to the excellent learning to be found within the voluntary sector – we need to be brought to the table as equal partners. By working together with a shared purpose to safeguard women and bring perpetrators to justice, we will have the tools to seriously challenge sexual exploitation in all its horrifying guises.
We can do this better together; as stated by Fran Ledra, Chief Social Worker for Adults in the introduction to the report, “it’s our responsibility to learn more about this issue”. Let us learn together and build a mutual respect so we can build a genuinely multi-agency robust response to tackling sexual exploitation across the country.
Angela Everson, CEO Women Centre Kirklees & Calderdale
Joanna Jones, CEO Grow Rotherham
Rokaiya Khan, CEO Together Women
Sarah McManus, CEO A Way Out
Laura Seebohm, Executive Director, Changing Lives
Moya Woolven, CEO Basis Leeds