Assessing child sexual exploitation from police and partner agency records: a confused and partial picture

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Assessing child sexual exploitation from police and partner agency records: a confused and partial picture

Drawing on information from various local agencies we recently completed an assessment to understand the scale and nature of child sexual exploitation (CSE) in a number of local areas. Problem profiles are a common tool used by the police and multi-agency partnerships to draw together a range of information to gauge the extent and nature of a problem and help steer resources and priorities. Our analysis of CSE revealed a substantial number of young people were classified as a CSE risk. However unlike more traditional priority crimes for policing, CSE does not have a strong presence in crime data and instead there is a reliance on proxy indicators collated by police officers, and to a large extent the records kept by a variety of support agencies such as children’s services, health and those from the third sector. Collectively, these information sources were found to draw a large but rather hazy picture of the CSE problem with the meaning of the various measures left uncertain.

There are parallels with other elements of serious and organised crime for which observers might query why, if national policy-makers are right to stress the pervasiveness of these problems, are practitioners not able to see it on the ground? While undertaking this assessment, a number of reasons for this became apparent:

CSE is not an offence category: the government has recently worked to pull together a clearer definition for CSE that can be adopted by all organisations, but it is not one enshrined in legislation and essentially depicts a range of behaviours and social dynamics that can lead to sexual abuse. In the absence of a legal definition CSE becomes hidden in the data, and can be represented to a greater or lesser degree by a variety of crime categories (for example rape, sexual assault or abduction). Distinguishing CSE from other sexual abuse crimes requires an understanding of the context in which each offence took place, but this information is largely absent from crime records. Instead there is a reliance on police officers flagging links to CSE, which is a subjective and inconsistent process.

The police are not necessarily central to the local response: victims and those at-risk’ often do not wish to engage with the police, and instead work more closely with statutory and third sector support services, many of whom have less of an inclination, capacity or capability to manage the volumes of information in the same way the police might. CSE therefore tends to be quantified in terms of an identified caseload, sometimes (not always) stratified by the likelihood that someone is either a victim or going to become one. This can create difficulties when integrating information from multiple organisations working to separate agendas, each with different processes for assessing risk, recording information and deciding which cases count’. Not only is the data highly fragmented, but when brought together they do not necessarily provide measures for the same thing.

Many victims do not report: there is considerable evidence that shows a high proportion of CSE goes unreported a separate study of ours found there had been a disclosure of victimisation for only a third (36 per cent)of those with an identified risk. Practitioners rely instead on a variety of behavioural and environmental cues that studies have shown to have an association with CSE (for example, regularly going missing or attending risky locations). Aggregate statistics for CSE can therefore incorporate young people from the full spectrum of risk type and severity; for example known victims of contact abuse will be included alongside others displaying concerning online behaviours.

Practitioners do not always see it: linked to the above point, practitioners without specialist knowledge in CSE (neighbourhood police teams, teachers, youth workers, youth offending teams, etc.) are crucial for drawing attention and support to a young person in the first instance. However CSE can often involve complex and hidden social dynamics between offender and victim which are not easily identified or understood; our recent research looking at links between CSE and organised crime found a general lack of understanding within local police teams of CSE and the behaviours that signal a risk. The result is victimisation and CSE risk going unacknowledged.

CSE sits alongside a number of high profile and priority crimes that are difficult to substantiate in quantitative terms. As a result, local prioritisation and decision-making are not necessarily borne out of real-world information which clearly outlines the size and form of the problem but rather a moral and political imperative that they should be doing something to tackle it. There is no question that CSE is occurring and drawing together information collected by a range of organisations is an important step forward but there remains a lack of common understanding about what CSE is, what information should be captured and how it should be meaningfully interrogated.

It is absolutely necessary that practitioners interpret indicators (or cues) to flag and assess the risk of CSE but analysis needs to accurately represent this information; a system in which practitioners use these proxy indicators to both flag up a potential problem, as well as measure it seems likely to generate a distorted picture. Information such as the proportion of confirmed victims, how the young person came to attention, the background factors behind the assessed risk, the imminence and severity of the risk, the nature of the exploitation and the modus operandi and profile of the perpetrators involved, all would seem critical to making sense of the various caseloads but remained largely absent from the information provided. By bundling everything recorded by practitioners into a single CSE basket there is a risk that practitioners and policy-makers misconstrue the problem and as a result, resources become poorly aligned to it.

Michael Skidmore and John Chapman, the Police Foundation