What counts as ‘safe accommodation’ for children affected by CSE/trafficking?

This week Lucie Shuker reports on her presentation at the IFCO 2016 conference about an evaluation of specialist foster care for children affected by CSE and/or trafficking, and reflects on some of the key messages for the UK and further afield.  

“CSE seems to be really increasing at the moment”

This was the observation of a supervising social worker for a fostering agency during a workshop I was hosting, at the International Foster Care Organisation’s European Conference in Sheffield last Friday. It wasn’t clear whether she meant that there were now more cases of exploitation, or more public attention on the problem of abuse. Either way, other heads nodded as she spoke.

While most victims of child sexual exploitation (CSE) live at home with their families, children in care are over-represented in research samples of children who are are known to be affected by CSE. Sadly media and policy attention on the risks to children in care are not new – the 1970s saw media coverage of a series of cases of ‘child prostitution’ involving local authority care, for example.

It was partly in response to these concerns about risks to children in care that Barnardo’s sought funding from the Department for Education to run a ‘Safe Accommodation Project’ between 2011-2013, which I evaluated. The project involved offering two-day awareness raising courses for foster carers and associated professionals on CSE and child trafficking, as well as ‘direct work’ for children in residential care. The final element of the project brought together Barnardo’s fostering services and their specialist CSE/trafficking projects to deliver 14 pilot specialist foster placements for children either at risk, or victims, of CSE and/or trafficking.

In my presentation I gave an overview of the particular needs of children affected by exploitation and trafficking in terms of accommodation, as well as some of the ways that the care system has often been unable to meet those needs. The evaluation used a case study approach – gathering multiple types of data from various people at different points in time to work out what was going in each home. Warm, trusting relationships had been created in the 10 placements that lasted more than a few weeks, and these unlocked a series of other positive outcomes including reduced missing episodes, greater awareness of healthy relationships, safe and stable accommodation and evidence of improvements to young people’s physical, emotional and psychological well-being.

While these outcomes are positive, the number of placements in this project was very small, and so we must exercise a degree of caution when it comes to making any further claims about the effectiveness of the approach. But what we can do, is identify some of the features of the placements that were most significant in contributing to those outcomes. The full report goes into a lot of detail about these features but here I will focus on two things.

The first is that while trying to maintain a balance between keeping children safe and making them feel cared for, carers were tipping the balance away from control and towards care. After identifying a range of ‘change mechanisms’ across and within placements, I concluded that the primary mechanism was care (seeing past challenges to the need for compassion and unconditional acceptance) followed closely by safeguarding (appropriate sensitivity to risk). Over time, growing trust between carers and children made it possible for restrictive safety measures, like removing phones or locking doors, to be understood as care. But in the meantime successful foster carers were emphasising positive attention and meeting children’s practical and emotional needs.

The second is the significance of context. There were a number of contextual features of placements that were important in explaining success. These included the personality, support, experience, training and availability of the carers, for example, as well as the level of agreement between professionals on risk and how to respond. One of the most important contexts was the location of the new foster home relative to the child’s community – and the strength of the child’s attachment to friends/family/communities that caused concern for their welfare. Describing one young woman’s determination to get back to her hometown, a Barnardo’s fostering social worker said:

“That is where she’s from, it’s who she is. And she’s lost both her parents. So the people she goes back to in those areas are – they’re just her – they’re everything about her. And she’s 16 years old – you can’t just cut it off.”

The evaluation suggested at least two possible responses to this: first, to recognise and properly account for how a young person feels about a new placement; and second to recognise what might be pulling them away, and to give them a genuine reason to stay.

Back in the conference hall during the break I got chatting to a man who was about to retire from 30 years as a social worker spent promoting the de-institutionalisation of alternative care across the world. When I explained what I was presenting he nodded and agreed with me that it was very likely foster carers across the world need support to protect children from trafficking and CSE. “But”, he reflected, “the first task is selling the idea of home-based care at all”.

It was a timely reminder that we, as a team of researchers, need to build the ‘international’ element of our work much more in the coming years. More importantly, a reminder that, as we work toward greater safety and well-being for looked after children in the UK, we are still deeply fortunate to have such a well developed foster care system in the first place. 

Further resources

You can read the full report and summary report, watch a short film or download a practitioner’s briefing on this study.