South Yorkshire Empower and Protect

Catch22 helped South Yorkshire authorities trial a new support model to keep sexually-exploited and vulnerable teenagers safe.

  • Parents, foster carers and professionals were supported by psychologists to use therapeutic approaches in daily interactions
  • Participating authorities are now mainstreaming some of the approaches developed


South Yorkshire Empower and Protect (SYEP) supported 12- to 18-year-old sexual exploitation victims or those at risk to remain safely within families, as an alternative to secure accommodation. Run from July 2015 by Sheffield, Barnsley and Rotherham councils, Doncaster Children's Services Trust and social business Catch22, it helped parents, carers and professionals use therapeutic approaches, boosting protective factors including positive relationships and placement stability.

The Sheffield Council-led bid for funding to the Children's Social Care Innovation Programme was inspired by charity MAC-UK's "Integrate" approach, involving clinicians bringing mental health support to young people in their communities. SYEP's clinical lead Dr Tania Rodrigues adapted this approach, basing her team's support on Ambit (adolescent mentalisation-based integrative therapy), a practice of reflecting on the thoughts and feelings underlying one's own and others' behaviour.

Rodrigues delivered four-day training to specially-recruited foster carers, alongside two-day training to social workers and other professionals, helping them understand the impact of trauma on emotional and cognitive development and behaviour and respond appropriately. She challenged professionals to change the "power imbalance" between them and young people, arguing that sexual exploiters' strategies to groom and control "aren't too dissimilar" to social workers' practice of giving young people time and attention to build their trust, warning of negative outcomes if they don't engage. Instead, she says, sexually-exploited teenagers should be empowered and listened to as "experts by experience". "Rather than asking what's wrong with them, we need to ask: ‘What's happened to you?', showing we understand there are elements around them reinforcing and maintaining their problems."

Funded for two years, the authorities' first referrals in October 2015 included teenagers in secure accommodation, on the brink of foster placement breakdown and on the edge of care. Rodrigues, a referrals manager and supervising social workers from the four authorities matched referrals with foster carers where appropriate. A joint plan, including risk management and boundary-setting at home, was then agreed between the social workers, carer and clinical team.

Young people identified a trusted professional as a key worker, who was invited to the training and monthly or fortnightly clinical supervision with the social worker. Rodrigues also visited foster carers regularly, helping them reduce anxiety by reflecting on their practice and discussing alternative approaches, alongside "psychologically informed family conversations", enabling carers and young people to discuss conflicts and possible resolution. Rodrigues modelled mentalisation to ensure everyone felt heard and respected, helping carers embed this in family interactions.

Rodrigues' team also worked with parents, using mentalisation in whole-family discussions to strengthen family support.

The client group widened in year two to authorities' most vulnerable teenagers. SYEP discontinued as a sub-regional initiative after ending in March 2017. But the three authorities and the trust signed a legacy document committing to mainstreaming key elements.

"In Barnsley, it helped shape how we work with vulnerable adolescents and support carers and families in safely caring for them in their own communities," says service director for children's social care and safeguarding, Melanie John-Ross. She says Barnsley's plan included social workers and foster carers accessing SYEP training resources and clinical consultation with mental health services.


A March 2017 evaluation report by the University of Bedfordshire and NatCen Social Research says SYEP demonstrates that sexually-exploited young people or those at risk can remain safely in communities, with the right support for them and their carers. Data for 14 young people among 36 referrals between October 2015 and October 2016 shows significant improvements in safety and expected future outcomes for nine cases. Of six cases with follow-up mental health data, five showed improvements, while 14 out of 16 young people reported a positive difference.

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