Jenni Whitehead looks at signs that show a young person may be at risk of abuse.

Schools are often the first agency to recognise that a young person may be at risk of sexual exploitation through prostitution and the parents of these young people may approach school for help. Sometimes it is the school that approaches parents to find out why their child’s attendance has dropped, or to discuss behaviour that is causing concern. The parent may be at the beginning stages of recognising that something is desperately wrong, or may be at the end of their tether, not knowing where to turn.

Risk of sexual exploitation should always be seen as a child protection issue and where a school has concerns they should follow locally-agreed procedures. Remember though, that there is nothing wrong with a school referring the issue to more than one agency at the same time and it may be that you have a specialised service in your area. Your local children’s safeguarding board should be able to tell you what services are available.

CROP (Coalition for the Removal of Pimping) supports parents of young people at risk across  West Yorkshire and the list of signs and indicators given here was drawn up from their experience of listening to parents who have had to face this issue.

CROP’s indicators of young people at risk

  • Serious changes in behaviour – children once open about friends and activities are now hostile, secretive, defensive about what they are doing and who they are spending time with.
  • Going out in clothes that are ‘too old for them’ or that they have borrowed from older young women.
  • Going places that you know they can not afford.
  • Coming home with expensive gifts such as mobile phones, jewellery – even drugs – and not being able to explain how they came by them.
  • Frequently staying out late, without explaning why.
  • Repeated truanting, missing from home regularly or for unusually long periods of time.
  • Being found in areas where they have no reason to be or coming home after days or nights away, looking well-cared for even though they have had nowhere to stay.
  • Getting into trouble with the police, committing crimes.
  • Bruises, marks on the body, sexually-transmitted diseases, pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse or self-harm.
  • Repeated phone calls, letters, emails from adults outside family social circle.
  • Strangers hanging about outside your home.
  • Young people getting into cars with unknown adults.
  • Associating with other young people known to be victims of sexual exploitation.
  • Friends at school express concern for them.
  • Agencies expressing concern.
  • Young people may try to tell you about their situation but not be able to.

Such lists can be useful in identifying young people at risk, but should be used sensitively to avoid unnecessary concern. When schools and parents recognise clusters of signs, it will obviously raise greater concern. Some of the signs given in the list above describe behaviour that, while problematic to the parent, cannot be seen as anything more than an indicator that something is wrong. Some parents do not recognise that their child is at risk at all and in these circumstances it would be useful to share a list of signs with them and point out your concerns.

It must be very hard for parents to be faced with these issues and they may need a great deal of support and understanding to enable them to take action by going to the police and social services themselves and this is where schools can help.

Parent’s fears of taking action may include:

  • Fear that their child will get into trouble – this is not the case, police and social care agencies will see the child as a victim of sexual abuse, as opposed to seeing them as prostitutes.
  • Fear that their child may be taken away from them and placed in care – social care and other agencies will always take care to explain to the parent that they wish to work with the parent and their child to avoid an escalation in the problem. Removal from the family is always viewed as the last resort and care orders are rarely sought in these circumstances.
  • If the young person has been involved for some time, the parents themselves may have been subjected to threats. These are often very serious and include threats of physical harm to their child or themselves. Such threats constitute harassment and parents should be encouraged to report them to the police.
  • Parents may feel embarrassed and ashamed about their child’s possible involvement in prostitution and may worry as to how others, including professionals, view them. Professionals can support the parents by reassuring them that it is the professional view that young people who have become involved, or are at risk of becoming involved, are seen as victims of sexual abuse through prostitution not as prostitutes. The men who exploit young people are viewed as sexual offenders and not as ‘boyfriends’, as they are often described by their female victims.

Schools can support parents by listening to concerns and offering advice about who the parent should report those concerns to. For some parents school-based staff may be the first people whom they have been able to talk to so it is essential that staff know how to advise parents. Make sure all staff know and understand how to operate child protection procedures and that they have access to appropriate telephone numbers. If there is a specialist service in the area invite them in to a staff meeting or Inset day to describe the work they are doing and how they can support schools in working with young people on these issues.