Safe Foster Care for Victims of Child Sexual Exploitation

This study is the first UK evaluation of specialist foster care for children at risk, or victims, of child sexual exploitation (CSE) and/or trafficking. It investigates how well the Safe Accommodation Project reduced risk and safeguarded these children.

Authors Lucie Elizabeth Shuker

Published by Safer Communities, Volume 14, Issue 1, (2015)

Exploitation risks

Any child can be affected by CSE regardless of their background and caution should be taken when attributing background experiences to level of vulnerability of being exploited. Many potential indicators are not strongly demonstrated, however research by Brown et al (2016) suggests that experience of being in local authority care is an indicator of increased risk of being a victim of CSE or child sexual abuse (CSA).

The expectation in Standard 4 of the Department for Education's Fostering Services National Minimum Standards that all children living in care "are protected from abuse and other forms of significant harm, for example, sexual or labour exploitation" is not being met. Children's social care services need to address the concerning research finding that aspects of local authority care may combine with these children's backgrounds to increase vulnerability.

Victims of CSE are disproportionately more likely to be placed in residential children's homes compared with the broader care population. There are several reasons why residential placements can be unsuccessful in addressing the impact of abuse or increase the risk of exploitation, for example:

  • Close proximity with peers who may facilitate or introduce others to abuse (Coy, 2008)
  • Perpetrators target children's homes (Beckett, 2011)
  • Care provided in secure units may be experienced as punitive as opposed to therapeutic (Beckett, 2011).

Out-of-authority placements may aim to protect these young people but:

  • The upheaval can be experienced as punishing the victim and can disrupt other relationships to the extent that vulnerability to CSE increases (Shuker, 2013).
  • Where therapeutic support is absent, physical safety has limited effectiveness (Roesch-Marsh, 2014).
  • If safety isn't addressed in the community, children often return to continued abuse.
  • As found among victims of CSE in Rotherham, the distance from home can increase risk if they go missing and attempt to travel back (Jay, 2014).

In 2012, the DfE recommended a reduction in out-of-area placement unless clearly in the child's best interest.

This study evaluates Barnardo's Safe Accommodation Project which was funded by the DfE as a "specialist foster care programme" for young people who have been sexually exploited and/or trafficked. It analyses 13 case studies, where each specialist placement for a child was a "case", and information gathered included placement documentation, 87 interviews and weekly monitoring logs.

Key findings

  • Eight out of 13 placements effectively protected young people, while three ended very quickly, and one did not keep a young woman safe.
  • Successful placements shared positive foster care approaches which provided Multi-dimensional safety to young people, including:
  • Physical safety; achieved by child-centred and co-produced (negotiated) safety strategies to progress towards increased autonomy, consistent boundaries, disrupting exploitation, making it difficult to run away, vigilant risk monitoring and reviewing safety strategies.
  • Relational safety; achieved by providing praise and positive attention, compassion, persistence and staying calm to avoid escalation.
  • Foster carers needed to expect, understand and accept resistance in order to be prepared for challenging behaviour. Reasons for resistance included:
  • Young people being at high risk with low relational trust.
  • Boundaries being novel to young people and for some mirroring the removal of control inherent in the experience of being trafficked.
  • Young people struggled to recognise the risk and exploitation that their carer and professionals were worried about. While this is a characteristic of adolescence, it is also part of the grooming process whereby victims are manipulated into thinking they are cared about to enable control over them.
  • Tipping the balance of care and control towards care - providing relational safety through a warm and trusting relationship - was most often cited as a mechanism for change as it enabled physical safety strategies to be seen, over time, as fair and led to other positive outcomes such as reducing missing episodes and increasing a young person's capacity to withhold consent.
  • Young people compared the ‘care and control' approach with negative previous experiences of carers with a ‘judgment and indifference' approach.
  • Social work teams needed to be able to hold risk.

Implications for practice

  • Particularly relevant to social care teams and commissioners, specialist foster care appears to provide increased safety to young people victimised by trafficking/CSE and importantly within their familiar context.
  • The findings confirm other research that highlights the importance of stable relationships for children.
  • Although specialist placements are more expensive, short-term funding of these placements may limit their effectiveness by increasing instability for young people.
  • Anyone who is supporting and caring for young people in care should promote, develop and model approaches which engender multi-dimensional safety for young people.

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

This article is part of CYP Now's special report on exploitation and vulnerability. Click here for more

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