Wednesday, 21 November 2012

How many children and young people are sexually exploited by gangs and groups in England?

A study by the Office of the Children's Commissioner, published today, says there were 2,409 children and young people sexually exploited by gangs and groups in England during the 14 months to October 2011.

That’s an estimate that strikes me as being a realistic minimum. It is, of course, 2,409 more cases than anybody would want.

However, I began to lose track of the methodology outlined in the report (which can be downloaded at ) when it came to the authors identifying a further 16,500 children who were said to be at "high risk of sexual exploitation" in 2010-11. The definition of ‘high risk’ offered in the report seemed to me to be rather vague. It involved identifying children who showed a minimum of three factors, from a list of eleven characteristics. However any of these could be accounted for by other forms of abuse, neglect, stress, misfortune and deprivation.

So I ended up not being able to get my head around what the authors meant by 'being at high risk of sexual exploitation'. And I can see how this lack of clarity might lead some commentators to be concerned that the extent of the problem may have been overstated in the report.

It is of vital importance, for the sake of victims, that we respond appropriately to the phenomenon of child sexual exploitation. We need a careful, measured and effective response, not a moral panic. Having an accurate picture of prevalence and incidence is essential and I am saddened that the report appears to muddy the waters in this regard.

My belief is that central to protecting sexually exploited children and young people is the provision of services which they can trust and which listen to them. Sexually exploited children and young people are frequently fearful of the consequences of disclosure. They are often fearful of their parents or carers discovering what has happened. Frequently abusers intimidate and threaten exploited children to try to ensure their silence. Some children and young people are convinced by their abusers that they themselves will also be punished if the abuse comes to light.

My view is that the urgent priority must be to devise more effective ways of encouraging victims to disclose. Disclosure must be made easier and safer.  And a consequence of higher levels of disclosure will be that more accurate estimates of the incidence and prevalence of sexual exploitation will be made possible.