Young people supported to get wise over exploitation

YMCA WiSE, YMCA Downslink Group's support service, helps young people affected by or at risk of sexual exploitation through its trauma-informed approach.

  • Uses a trauma-informed approach tailored to a child or young person's needs
  • Raises awareness in the community of child sexual exploitation and abuse
  • Delivers training to professionals to help them recognise signs of exploitation


The project, backed by the National Lottery Community Fund, which began in Brighton and Hove nearly a decade ago, has since expanded to cover parts of Surrey and East Sussex.

While it addresses issues such as body image, self-esteem, friendships, family relationships, online safety and consent, it also helps young people in abusive relationships or that have been groomed or sexually exploited.

The project's name - What is Sexual Exploitation (WiSE) - reflects another element to its work: to raise awareness of child sexual exploitation (CSE) in the community.

"At the time it was launched in Brighton, there wasn't any other similar service providing support for children and young people potentially being sexually exploited.

"Professionals weren't really noticing that this was happening and it was something that the WiSE project set out to do to get on their agenda," explains Hayley Cohen, the project's manager.

The team includes a schools worker as well as a practitioner assigned to work specifically with boys and young men. Together with a participation and engagement worker - tasked with engaging young people to become WiSE ambassadors for the project - the team remains small yet effective.

Cohen believes it is the wide-ranging knowledge and experience of its workers coupled with a bespoke service that enables it to successfully support vulnerable young people.

"Our workers tailor all of the work, the resources, how they interact with that young person to their needs," she explains.

"We might have young people who want to do worksheets with us or play a game or those who just want to talk. That's a real strength of the team; that they take that into account and it's led by the young person."

The project's main technique involves one-to-one support sessions which are offered to children and young people on an unlimited basis.

"If we are taking something on that's more preventative then we might put a time frame around it so we might offer up to 12 sessions and then review it. But if someone is at the point of being sexually exploited then we will work with them for as long as the worker and the young person feel that they need it," says Cohen.

Group work takes place where schools are experiencing particular issues with sessions "targeted at the group the school has concerns about", she adds.

Referrals are mainly received from schools and social workers but Cohen says parents and carers have also contacted the project.

She says it has helped fill gaps created by "stretched" statutory services unable to offer support to all vulnerable children and young people.

"We've had quite a few referrals from early help and key workers in East Sussex where they might not have the capacity to do the work that is required," she says.

Where other professionals have established a good relationship with a child or young person, WiSE workers will offer support rather than create their own relationship.

"We do things like provide session plans, resources, advice. Sometimes it's just a bit of reassurance that what they are doing is okay," says Cohen.

To reinforce its awareness-raising work, the project delivers CSE training to a range of professionals as well as local businesses such as hotels and bed and breakfast operators.

Cohen says a recent scheme to deliver training to more than 550 taxi drivers in Brighton around identifying signs of CSE was a success.

"We devised the training and WiSE delivered it as well. We've already had lots of positive feedback and one taxi driver who reported his concerns," she says.


More than 130 children and young people who were victims or considered at significant risk of CSE were helped by the project over the course of last year.

In addition, its team of specialist workers have trained more than 400 professionals including police, social workers, school staff, children's home providers and GPs to equip them with the knowledge, skills and confidence to identify and safeguard those at risk.

The project's specialist boys and young men's worker also delivered targeted group work programmes to 40 boys and young men last year.

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