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5.4 Working with Adults Affected by Child Sexual Exploitation and Organised Child Sexual Abuse

1. Introduction

There is, rightly, now much focus on children who are victims of child sexual exploitation (CSE). However, when they reach their 18th birthday those children become adults. Their needs, in relation to the abuse and trauma they have experienced, need to be  recognised by the adult services which are responsible for their care and support, in order to be able to offer them the most appropriate support  and promote their wellbeing.

There are a number of different groups of adult victims / survivors. First are those who continue to be abused by perpetrators once they turn 18, and who should subsequently become the subject of a safeguarding adult enquiry. Second are those who are no longer being abused but disclose historic CSE to which the statutory adult agencies have a duty to respond. Third, even when the sexual abuse, physical abuse and psychological abuse has stopped, many survivors will require some level of care and support as adults, due to complex personal issues which they suffer as a result of the trauma they experienced.  These include mental ill health, self-harm, problematic use of illicit drugs or alcohol which can be compounded by interrupted education resulting in unemployment or low paid jobs with resulting economic insecurity.

In addition, some young adults may also be vulnerable to organised sexual abuse; being targeted for the first time as adults not as children. In particular this applies to those who have care and support needs due to learning or physical disabilities, especially if they are in residential accommodation.  Whilst the focus has been on girls and young women, this also applies to young men who are a more hidden group of victims.

In the absence of specific findings in relation to the longer term effects of CSE on adults, this chapter utilises CSE reports and research from children’s services to provide guidance to practitioners and managers working in adult care services.

2. Definition and Terminology

2.1 Definition of sexual exploitation

While some victims who were groomed as children continue to be abused as adults, others are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse starting in young adulthood often as a result of having learning disabilities, physical disabilities, mental health problems, substance misuse issues or because they are vulnerable in other ways.

Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. It occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator. The victim may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears consensual. Child sexual exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology. (Department of Education, 2017: p5)

2.2 Definitions of gangs and groups

While there are undoubtedly perpetrators who operate alone, in this context sexual exploitation/abuse relates to organised, planned abuse by a number of criminals who are either:

  • gangs who are street based, social groups who a) engage in a range of criminal activity and violence; b) identify or lay claim to territory; c) have some form of identifying structural feature; and d) are in conflict with similar groups. Sexual abuse and violence is part of their overall criminality, rather than their sole focus.
  • groups of two or more people connected through formal or informal associations or networks including, but not exclusively, friendship groups. Their main purpose is to sexually exploit others. (Office of the Children’s Commissioner, 2013)

2.3 Terminology

Whilst the term exploitation – making use of a situation to gain unfair advantage for oneself – may be appropriate at the grooming stage (see Section 3, Indicators of Sexual Exploitation / Organised Abuse), in the most serious cases it is rape, multiple rape, gang rape, often accompanied by physical violence and emotional / psychological abuse. Using ‘exploitation’ in relation to such circumstances can disguise the level of harm that is perpetrated. This chapter therefore uses the term ‘sexual exploitation / organised abuse’.

2.4 Grooming

Grooming is when someone builds an emotional connection with a child or an adult, to gain their trust for the purposes of sexual abuse / exploitation. This can happen in person and online. Groomers can spend considerable time gaining their victim’s trust, hiding their true abusive intentions. Their methods include:

  • giving the victim a lot of attention and making them feel wanted and loved, often through flattery;
  • being understanding and listening to them;
  • buying or giving them gifts;
  • taking them out,
  • giving them drugs or alcohol – often for the first time – and making life with them seem exciting;
  • making them believe they are in a relationship together.

Organised sexual abuse by groups includes:

  • repeated sexual abuse / rape by their ‘boyfriend’ and his friends;
  • being trafficked to other towns and cities for the purposes of organised sexual abuse;
  • being verbally and physically threatened / abused if they try to exit the abuse;
  • family and friends being physically threatened;
  • attempts to groom younger siblings or friends;
  • being plied with alcohol and drugs to make them compliant to the point of addiction.

3. Indicators of Sexual Exploitation/ Organised Abuse

The following are key indicators of sexual exploitation / organised abuse, of which practitioners working with young adults with care and support needs should be particularly aware:

  • acquisition of money, clothes, mobile phones etc without plausible explanation;
  • gang association and / or isolation from peers / social networks;
  • exclusion or unexplained absences from school, college or work;
  • leaving home / care without explanation and persistently going missing or returning late;
  • excessive receipt of texts/phone calls;
  • returning home under the influence of drugs / alcohol;
  • inappropriate sexualised behaviour for age / sexually transmitted infections;
  • evidence of / suspicions of physical or sexual assault;
  • relationships with controlling or significantly older individuals or groups;
  • multiple callers (unknown adults or peers);
  • frequenting areas known for sex work;
  • concerning use of internet or other social media;
  • increasing secretiveness around behaviours; and
  • self-harm or significant changes in emotional wellbeing. (Department for Education, 2017)

It is important that all practitioners are aware of the issues of sexual exploitation and organised abuse. Adult care services should provide appropriate training sessions for staff (see Section 7, Training and Supervision).

The Care Act 2014 places a duty on local authorities to make enquiries if there are concerns that an adult with care and support needs is experiencing or at risk of abuse or neglect, and, as a result of those needs, is unable to protect themselves. This applies, for example, where an adult discloses sexual exploitation / organised abuse or if a member of the public or parent expresses concerns about an adult (see also Adult Safeguarding, Section 4, Enquiry by the Local Authority).

4. Local Information

In order to protect both children and adults from organised sexual abuse the following information should be shared between children’s and adult services:

  • the profile of young adults currently found to be most likely to be at risk in the local area;
  • particular residential homes which have been / are targeted by perpetrators (see below);
  • the profile of offenders (for example, gang associated, single perpetrator or organised groups);
  • specific ‘hotspots’/ locations (such as takeaway shops, hostels, party houses or transport hubs); and
  • local structures for response (for example, voluntary and statutory sector service providers, referral pathways, multi-agency working arrangements).

4.1 Residential care / supported living

When managers suspect that adults living in residential homes or supported living arrangements – for which they are responsible – are being targeted by perpetrators, they should undertake an assessment in relation to this specific risk and in order to  identify adults who are experiencing or at risk of sexual exploitation/organised abuse. This should include people in residential care, supported living environments, and those in the process of transition from children’s services (including child protection) to adult care/adult safeguarding.

4.2 Transition from children’s to adults services

For those transitioning from children’s services to adult care who have been sexually exploited / abused, it is crucial that the needs of the young person are clearly identified and action is put in place to ensure ongoing support and protection, and that the support needs of their parents are also identified and addressed. See also Transition to Adult Care and Support.

5. Social Work Assessments / Risk Assessments

5.1 Initial contact and building relationships

Many CSE reports and inquiries have found that professionals, family members and the public who were raising concerns were often not properly listened to. There are other difficulties which prevent victims coming forward. Those who may be victims of abuse often find it difficult to speak out about their situation, particularly when they have been sexually abused as it will require disclosing very personal details. Undertaking assessments is a key time for victims / survivors, in both disclosing very distressing intimidate information as well as taking initial steps to form trusting relationships with the professionals tasked with protecting them (see Assessments and Case Recording).

Relationships of trust need to be built over time and staff need to be appropriately skilled in active listening to pick up on small clues or unexplained changes in behaviour, which may arise during contact with adults who are experiencing / have experienced sexual abuse. Where adults do disclose concerns about sexual exploitation/abuse, these must  be ‘heard’, taken seriously and acted upon.

6. Taking Action

Staff should follow local safeguarding procedures and  involve a discussion / meeting to plan who takes what action. This must  include the police whose role is to investigate crimes that have been committed, collect evidence and – where they believe they have a case – present to the Crown Prosecution Service to decide whether it is appropriate to charge individuals. If  there is no law enforcement action against alleged perpetrators, it allows them to further traumatise current victims and groom new ones. This has a significant impact on families of victims, who feel unable to help their child/sibling, or may be victims of bullying and intimidation from the perpetrators themselves (see Adult Safeguarding).

6.1 Post-abuse support

It is recognised that sexual abuse, including that of an organised nature, has long-lasting effects for victims and their families. These may range from psychological and emotional affecting relationships and future parenting abilities, to mental health and substance misuse issues. These place further stress on victims and their families and further demand on health and social care services.

The provision of appropriate support to those who have suffered trauma can significantly improve their lives in terms of health and family relationships. Survivors are likely to require support and therapeutic intervention for an extended period of time. Local Safeguarding Adult Boards should work with its partners to ensure the delivery of post-abuse support, and that staff, frontline managers and victims and their families know how to access this support.

7. Training and Supervision

Services should ensure that their staff receive regular, high quality supervision which enables them to reflect on their practice. Those who offer direct support to sexually exploited adults may also require further intensive training and specialist support.

For social workers involved in adult safeguarding, it is suggested that the standards for employers of social workers in England and supervision framework for employers of social workers in England are in place, or local policy and procedure on supervision is followed. All other professionals should follow their own profession’s supervision standards, and/or their agency’s supervision policy and procedures. Social work and other professional interventions need to be supported by clear skills and set of competences.