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Modern-day slavery: How social workers are responding to hidden forms of abuse

‘It’s people, it’s guns, it’s drugs,’ Neil Connolly, social worker with Hampshire County Council, said at a seminar last week.

27/11/23

Modern-day slavery: How social workers are responding to hidden forms of abuse

Modern slavery is big business, generating billions for the perpetrators, an audience heard at the recent Social Work Innovations conference, part of the COMPASS Jobs Fair.

‘Children are being moved round the globe for their organs. There’s money to be made.

‘The only way to tackle it is through a multi-agency focus. Training is vital. The perpetrators are always doing things differently so we need to keep training as we play catch-up.

He is team manager for Willow, the county’s multi-agency specialist exploitation team.
Willow is supported through the Office of the Police & Crime Commissioner. It includes NGOs and looks at slavery among adults and children. It focusses on training and victim support and for the police, on disrupting the criminals.

‘I know the children we work with are always, always far more scared of the perpetrators than they are of the police or of social care. Trying to break that cycle when children are in County Lines is hard work. Nobody wants to talk – “snitches get stitches” -- that kind of thing is what we are working with.

‘As a social worker you have to be aware of the processes and to understand what it feels like. What do you need to know so that you can get to the threshold where you can say yes this child is being trafficked, and then do something about it?

‘It’s important that you know what the signs are and how you can make a difference. Children will be in places they aren’t meant to be – in ‘bandos’ (abandoned buildings); out during the day when they should be in school.

He said that other signs include:
• working long hours in harsh or unsafe conditions
• living somewhere dirty, cramped or overcrowded
• living and working at the same address
• being unable to move around freely
• showing signs of physical or psychological abuse
• seeming frightened or withdrawn
• being reluctant to seek help
• being fearful of the police and not knowing who to trust

‘A key aspect in modern-day slavery is that the person becomes a commodity and property for somebody else’s benefit. If you don’t have paperwork, like a passport you haven’t got an identity. You cannot access services such as registering with a GP, education, finance and so on.

‘There’s also the issue of debt bondage. Once people get into debt bondage they’ll never get out of it. Why would a perpetrator allow you to pay back the debt when they can keep making money out of you? That is a reality in modern day slavery.

‘Alongside that we also get the sexual physical; and emotional abuse that comes alongside the crime.’

Mr Connolly said that in Hampshire, a child being flagged as ‘missing’ is a key indicator that he or she is being exploited. ‘I’ve got two workers whose jobs are to look at missing children every single day…for our police colleagues [there are] three ‘missing’ teams and that is their job too – every single day.

‘We’ve set up two specialist refugee teams. As specialists they are able to look culturally at what individuals’ and groups’ needs are and make sure that they are met. We also link in with anti-trafficking teams at Barnardo’s.

He discussed the National Referral Mechanism which aims to improve the identification of victims and help build a more comprehensive picture of the nature and scale of modern slavery.

In order to speed up and make the process more efficient, Hampshire has a devolved decision-making pilot. This gives a turnaround of four weeks – much quicker than usual for the NRM.

Hampshire’s approach of multi-agency involvement means that practitioners get a more up to date brief on risk. It is also linked to a training package for the country.

Crucially, he said, the child’s voice has to be paramount. ‘We are in positions of power. So…are we strengths-based? Are we alongside somebody rather than doing to? What are we doing to make a difference to that person?

‘Being a social worker today is not a fly-by-night thing. You have to invest in the people you work with and see what works for them.’

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