How can local authorities improve their response to child trafficking?

Clare Tudor discusses what professionals need to know when supporting children who are victims of trafficking

Child trafficking is a horrendous form of child abuse, and one that shows no sign of abating. It is therefore more pertinent than ever that local authorities and social workers are equipped to respond appropriately and support these vulnerable children.

However, with traffickers using complex means to exploit children including grooming and violence, identifying and supporting child victims can be challenging, and requires specific training and resources. But it is vital that these children – some of the most vulnerable in society – are adequately supported and protected from further exploitation. Consistency ECPAT UK is a leading children’s rights organisation working to protect children from trafficking and transnational exploitation.

We have extensive experience of the issues facing trafficked children based on our 25 years of research and direct work with young victims of trafficking, who guide the direction of our work. We recently received Home Office funding to conduct an audit of four local authorities’ responses to child trafficking, identify any gaps and provide training in line with best practice.

The findings of this work illustrate a response that is inconsistent across the country and leaves children vulnerable. Although there are pockets of excellent practice and a sound knowledge of issues around child sexual exploitation (CSE), we have found there are significant gaps in the identification of trafficking How can local authorities and social work staff improve theirresponse to child trafficking?

In our audit, we found that while social workers often had a vague knowledge of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, they had little understanding of the generally universally accepted definition of trafficking found in the Palermo Protocol (UN, 2000).

Moreoever, during our training sessions for front-line professionals, when a room of multi-agency professionals were asked to raise their hands if they are first responders, very few social workers were aware of their duty in this capacity.

In fact, social workers working for a local authority have a duty to report cases of suspected trafficking to the Home Office under the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). Making first responders aware of their duties and best practice in responding is therefore a good place to start in order to improve responses to child trafficking in the UK. The most effective way of doing this is through regular, thorough training.

Our training programme is consistently rated as excellent, with social workers reporting that they felt much more confident about the processes, their role and responsibilities when supporting a young person who is suspected of being a victim of exploitation.

We encourage a multi-agency approach to training so that children and family social workers are being trained together with local police, health and education colleagues. Having a checklist of indicators can also help social workers to be aware of these complex signs, behaviours and risks. The social workers we’ve trained have been advised to have to hand a copy of a trafficking indicator matrix, for example the one found in the London Safeguarding Trafficked Children Toolkit (2009), or a list of potential indicators. These lists are in no way exhaustive, but can certainly be a useful prompt.

Of course, one of the major complexities is that young people rarely recognise themselves as victims of trafficking, and those brought from overseas may have communication and cultural barriers, as well as a fear of authorities.

Sadly, many go missing once found and placed in care and it is pivotal that we have a greater understanding of the link between missing episodes and trafficking. This was articulated in our Heading Back from Harm report which is currently being updated.

Furthermore, we need to gain an understanding of the myriad methods of control traffickers use to suppress and manipulate their victims.

What often comes as a surprise to front-line professionals is that the highest number of children recognised as a victim of trafficking are British. They live on our streets, sit next to us on public transport, and we see them daily. There may well be no international borders crossed, and as seen in the excellent 2017 BBC drama Three Girls, they may simply be taken across the road to be groomed and exploited.

Trafficking may entail one-off episodes of exploitation, or years of the most horrific abuse. What we must always keep in mind is that legally, young people cannot consent to their exploitation, even though they may seem complicit or even willingly involved. This makes child trafficking exceptionally challenging to work with.

However child trafficking is child abuse and should always be treated as such by all agencies. What’s more, agencies must understand one another’s roles and remits, and work together to recognise exploitation, stop it from happening and mitigate the risk of it happening again in future.

Trafficking changes; it is not a static phenomenon. New types of exploitation emerge, especially around the advancement and accessibility of technology. There is a far greater understanding of some forms of child trafficking, for example CSE, and the relatively recent emergence of drug related ‘county lines’ exploitation, yet other types are less understood because of the very nature of their being hidden.

Young people are still being criminalised for their involvement in the illegal activities they have been coerced into, such as cannabis cultivation. Early identification, consistent support and access to specialist legal representation and high quality interpretation where necessary may mean that they attend court as a witness rather than a defendant; that they go to university rather than prison.

One of the key messages we wish to give to local authorities’ staff is that they are not alone; supporting trafficked children is not an easy task and there are specialist national and local agencies that provide advice, support, fact sheets and helplines for professionals and children. This includes newsletters and campaigns, books and films, social media, theatre performances and most importantly opportunities to listen directly to the voices of young people in many of these.

This article was originally published in COMPASS, the annual guide to social work and social care.

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