In the UK The Modern Slavery Act 2015 has finally offered a statutory response to the trafficking of human beings, slavery, servitude and exploitation of children and adults. It provides a legal process by which we can identify, prevent, investigate and prosecute these dreadful crimes against vulnerable children. However, to do so requires some understanding of the complexities of such cases; the varied forms of exploitation, vulnerabilities, interpersonal dynamics, roles, responsibilities and so on.
The exploitation of vulnerable children does not happen in a vacuum. A single case of Cexploitation happens in the context of a sophisticated system that is made up of many people with different roles and functions. Protective agencies are also a part of that system. Tackling the trafficking and exploitation of children therefore requires that we understand the nature of the problem from a systemic point of view: actions in any part of that system or network will have an effect throughout the whole of the network.
Reliance upon traditional methods of investigation and safeguarding of children in the context of any kind of organised exploitation is inadequate to the task. Existing methodologies are reactive; they are dependent upon the identification of or disclosure of abuse, an identifiable victim and perpetrator – the abuse has been detected and investigation and intervention follows an inductive or “top down” process to explain what happened, how it happened and how it will be remedied.
Exploitation and Trafficking of children, by its nature is covert and its victims are often hidden. Children and young people that have been exploited do not necessarily know they have been, and if they do, may feel embarrassed about their predicament and do not trust law enforcement or social care agencies enough in order to report their situation. Indeed, some children and young people that are victims of exploitation have been arrested numerous times for other offences such as prostitution, public order offences and petty crime and drug offences before their real status has been recognised.
The level of violent coercion used by those that traffic and exploit children and young people is often under-estimated. Fear of retribution from perpetrators prevents disclosure and often causes victims to deny that they have been trafficked, falsely imprisoned or forced into sex work. The hidden nature of trafficking and sexual exploitation means that victims are kept in isolation and are often trapped by or dependent upon the abusers. Those trafficked from outside the country may be trafficked illegally and find themselves treated as illegal immigrants by police and border agencies before their real situation is realised. Other vulnerabilities, such as physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities, as well as language barriers have in some cases precluded trafficked people seeking help.
Exploitation is a wide reaching term that is essentially about the varied exploitation of vulnerable children, from and within a variety of contexts. It is a conduit to abuse but one that relies upon the mutual co-operation of those that trade and use children, the utilisation of legal loopholes, the inherent weaknesses and gaps within organisational structures and protocols, the corruption of officials and coercion of the victims.
As a secret or hidden phenomenon it is surrounded by myths, assumptions and false perceptions. All these elements coalesce to form complex eco-systems in which abuse and exploitation is maintained. Like any ecosystem, exploitation of children is constantly changing, adapting to new pressures and opportunities but at the same time maintaining a coherence: changes in the various elements fit together to meet the needs and goals of the group that is perpetrating the abuse. This therefore has implications for all agencies working to identify, prevent, investigate and prosecute cases of Child Sexual Exploitation.
Instead of simply focusing upon the victim there needs to be recognition that the victim, their abusers and those agencies that strive to protect children form a larger system. An effective response to trafficking and exploitation therefore cannot be one that “Gives” an intervention to the victim but rather one that promotes movements or perturbations in the entire system, identifies the effects and reveals the next relevant step in the enquiry (Dallos, 1992). What this comes down to is a change in our approach whereby we become more exploratory, looking for connections, themes and dependencies. Gradually, as the reality and extent of the case becomes clear, key members and mechanisms of the network are identified (whether they are perpetrators or victims), relationships and dependencies become understood and motivations and modus operandi emerge. By so doing we can simultaneously protect actual and potential victims, identify, disrupt and remove offenders and improve safeguarding and prosecutorial outcomes and reduce the risk of re-victimisation.