Exploring Peer Mentoring as a Form of Innovative Practice with Young People at Risk of Child Sexual Exploitation

Little is known about the use of peer-led approaches as a response to child sexual exploitation (CSE). This small qualitative study aimed to gain an insight into young people's views and experiences of peer mentoring.

  • Gillian Buck et al
  • British Journal of Social Work 47, (2017)

Child sexual exploitation has risen to the forefront of political and public interest following a series of high-profile criminal cases in the UK. One area of research that has been undertaken in recent years - Berelowitz et al 2013, Becket et al 2013 - is around gang-associated young women and sexual exploitation. This research has identified patterns of victimisation in these young women including: pressure or coercion; sex in return for status or protection; multiple perpetrator rape; exchange of sex for drugs, alcohol, debt or money; to set up males from rival gangs; and to disrespect a rival gang (for example, having sex with a family member). These experiences lie within a broader context among young people of sexual violence, exploitation and victim-blaming.

Manchester Active Voices

Manchester Active Voices (MAV) is a young person's service that works to address the hidden problem of young gang-associated women who have been exploited or are at risk of exploitation. The project employs female peer mentors with lived experiences of serious youth violence or exploitation. The theory underpinning the approach is that mentors' community-based experiences enable them to help mentees understand the culture in which they find themselves. Research has shown that peer mentors can also instil trust and hope through being a positive role model that has overcome similar challenges to mentees.

The study and key findings

The study used a mixed methods qualitative approach (self-completion booklets, interviews, focus group) to explore the meanings that participants attached to mentoring relationships. Data was gathered from 11 mentees (aged between 12 and 18) and three peer mentors. The article reports findings on the following five issues.

  • Multiple vulnerabilities: Mentees had a range of complex needs and vulnerabilities including being groomed; involved with older men online and at parties involving drugs; excluded from school; living in care; involved with child protection; financially unstable; and struggling with self-esteem, bullying and self-harm. Mentors recognised the importance of addressing these factors to prevent an escalation of harms.
  • Mentors as a point of connection: Young people enjoyed their time with mentors and valued the work in their communities. They discussed being able to speak to mentors about things they could not speak to others about. This was because mentors were from the local area and understood their problems and because they were less "authoritarian" than other workers.
  • Approach to working: There were two approaches that were particularly valued by mentees: the time mentors spent with them and the individualised support they provided. Young people were able to work with mentors at their own pace in a relaxed, non-pressured, informal environment. Activities and interventions varied, depending on the needs of the individual. This enabled the young people to have fun and feel "normal", as well as to develop trust and confidence in their mentor.
  • Reducing invisibility: Young people described a move from feelings of isolation to being connected to others, which suggests that being mentored helped them to build their peer and family support network.
  • Challenges: A number of challenges to the mentoring programme were identified, including: the insecure funding environment of MAV, which limited the potential for long-term work; and the unsustainable level of dependency on mentors being available around the clock.

Implications for practice

  • This is a small-scale study of one peer-mentoring programme and it is not possible to extrapolate the findings to other peer-mentoring programmes. Notwithstanding this limitation, study participants highly valued the approach.

The following recommendations were identified by the young people:

  • Projects should place young people with experiences of CSE at the centre of their practice. This could include identifying, training and supporting young people who have survived such experiences to become mentors; creating a young person's advisory panel; or holding consultation events.
  • Young people requested group activities and family support work. They offered suggestions such as themed groups co-designed with mentees, group outings and group education sessions focused upon healthy relationships. These activities invest in young people's social supports, which has the potential to build resilience post mentoring.
  • Projects should recruit multi-professional advisory panels (police, children's services, mental health) as participants persistently communicated frustration with some services.
  • Support, development and training for mentors should be formalised, with space for reflective supervision to support mentors' resilience and facilitate their self-care.


Related resources

Tools and Checklists to Assess Risk of CSE, Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse

Journey to Justice: Prioritising the Wellbeing of Children Involved in Criminal Justice Processes Relating to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, Barnardo's, September 2017

Child Sexual Exploitation and Mental Health: Children's Social Care Innovation Programme Thematic Report 3, Nikki Luke with professor Judy Sebba, Alun Rees and Di McNeish, July 2017

Child Sexual Exploitation: Public Health Support, Prevention and Intervention, Public Health England, July 2017

Key Messages From Research on Child Sexual Exploitation, Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse, January-June 2017

Child Sexual Exploitation: Definition and Guide, Department for Education, February 2017

The Alexi Project: Evaluation Reports, Harris, Roker, Shuker, Brodie, D'Arcy, Dhaliwal, Pearce, University of Bedfordshire, 2013-17

Related resources by Research in Practice

Working Effectively to Address Child Sexual Exploitation: Evidence Scope, Eaton and Holmes, October 2017

Young Person-Centred Approaches in CSE - Promoting Participation and Building Self-Efficacy: Frontline Briefing, C Warrington, February 2017

Child Sexual Exploitation: Practice Tool, Beckett, Holmes and Walker, February 2017

Child Neglect and its Relationship to Sexual Harm and Abuse: Responding Effectively to Children's Needs, Research in Practice, November 2016

That Difficult Age: Developing a More Effective Response to Risks in Adolescence: Evidence Scope, Hanson and Holmes, November 2014

Children and Young People Missing From Care and Vulnerable to Sexual Exploitation: Strategic Briefing, R Godar, September 2013

The research section for this special report is based on a selection of academic studies which have been explored and summarised by Research in Practice, part of the Dartington Hall Trust.

CYP Now Digital membership

  • Policy and research analysis
  • Evidence-based case studies
  • Leadership advice
  • Legal updates
  • Local area spotlights

From £170 /year


CYP Now Magazine

  • Policy and research analysis
  • Evidence-based case studies
  • Leadership advice and interviews
  • Legal updates

From £136 /year