Not a new issue? Child Criminal Exploitation in Essex

Today, Healthwatch Essex releases a new report: ‘Victims, Perpetrators and Witnesses’: Tackling Child Criminal Exploitation in Essex. In this blog, the report author, Hannah Fletcher, reflects on her experience of writing the report and her hopes for the impact it may have.

“This is not a new issue”: something I heard numerous times over the course of this study.

Gangs, county lines, and children being exploited into transporting and selling drugs might not be a new issue, but in recent years it is one that has gained heightened focus in communities, media, and policy. In part, this attention has carried over from the wake of previous failings around child sexual exploitation (CSE) which scrutinised the ways in which children and young people (CYP) are safeguarded from abuse.

CCE is not a new issue, but it is one that we are seeing in a new light. The professionals involved in this study agreed that CYP groomed into transporting drugs or carrying knives were the victims of crime, not perpetrators, and therefore required a safeguarding approach. A criminal justice response, I was often told, would only further their victimisation and risk of exploitation.

However, it quickly became obvious that the challenges to preventing CCE went beyond attitude change. Firstly, a lack of data means it is not possible to form a clear idea of the number of CYP affected by criminal exploitation, making it difficult to target resources and justify funding. In this study I found that senior leaders often felt the issue of CCE had been blown out of proportion due to ‘scaremongering’ in the media, whereas professionals who worked with CYP every day felt overwhelmed and overstretched by an insurmountable challenge – one they felt they were dealing with alone.

This is not to say that little work on CCE is taking place in our county. I found the opposite to be true; in the last few years new organisations, projects, and training offers all aimed to tackle CCE. This in itself could be challenging as there were now more organisations relying on already-scarce funding sources, inconsistent messaging between services, and little evidence on best practice – all against the backdrop of austerity measures.

On top of this, CCE does not belong to any one sector and falls within the remit of health, social care, education, justice and beyond. As an independent organisation, it felt appropriate that Healthwatch Essex could utilise its networks across these sectors to understand how these challenges might be overcome through working with local organisations like Achievement Through Football as well as nationally established charities such as St. Giles Trust.

Therefore, I have high hopes for this report and the change it can generate…not just in bolstering existing evidence highlighting the need for investment in services, from prevention through to exit, but in getting the most from that investment by implementing quality assurance measures, addressing the concerns of education professionals, and strengthening multi-agency work with particular collaboration with the health sector.