This article was first published on the National Organisation on the Treatment of Abuse (NOTA) News Bulletin Board
This reflective article, written by Adam, is a summary of the key points from two conversations between Adam and Anna exploring aspects of how Adam’s lived-experience of child sexual exploitation (CSE) and being a service user has shaped his contributions to the Boys 2 project (Barnardos, 2018) and his professional identity as a student youth worker. Boys 2 is a research project that looks to identify the needs and ways of working with boys and young men who have been victims (or are at risk of) CSE. The project’s research has since been transformed into a guide for practitioners, in a range of fields, to support best practice in working with boys and young men.
We would recommend this article for all professionals working with children and young people, as well as those working specifically in the context of CSE, child sexual abuse and harmful sexual behaviours.
Undertaking research and curiosity about the past
During a research methods module in my Youth and Community Work degree, I decided that I wanted to investigate CSE in Wales and how youth work might impact on this topic. Following a literature review, I wanted to look at my own case files to reflect on what kind of things were being recorded about me and about my experiences, when I was a child. It was important for me to see the “professional” lens, at that time. As a consequence of requesting my childhood case files, I was invited to be involved with the Boys 2 research.
Early involvement with Boys 2 research highlighted to me how young people were continuing to raise some of the same complaints that I had as a young person experiencing CSE and involved with services. Reflecting on my experience, I feel that whilst best intentions were always there, mistakes were made by a range of agencies, but particularly within education and social care. To try and change and improve things for other young people, I agreed to be part of the research and contribute to developing the Boys 2 project.
A “Vulnerability” Profile
Looking back, I had what might be professionally termed as a “vulnerability profile” prior to my experiences of CSE. This is in part based on my memories but is also based on what I have learnt from reviewing my historic case files and talking to people involved in my life at the time, e.g. old teachers, friends of family and extended family. I have reflected on what professionals noticed and missed in terms of these vulnerabilities when I was a young child. I recall from a really young age, perhaps around 3 or 4 years old, complaining about there not being enough food in the house. I remember comments such as: “it’s like you have never been fed in your life”. I also have a memory of my father intentionally putting my hand in boiling water when I was about 5 years old. Family members and friends’ parents have since told me that during this period my father was abusive to my mother. I do recall witnessing and hearing domestic abuse and experiencing neglect.
It has been striking recalling my memories of this and matching this up to records on my file. It was clear with the scolding that when I was presented at A&E, my parents had difficulty explaining how the injury had happened. The lack of professional curiosity behind the incident and that even though it was followed up there was little done to take into account the context of my wider life was shocking- and this was not an uncommon theme in my case files.
It is interesting to consider how I understood these events as a child at the time and how I understand them now, filtered through an adult and professional lens. When considering the above experiences, this raises questions as to what is and isn’t included in assessments of children and young people. It seems that the people who best know the child are not always consulted. This felt like this was the case for me. I understand that there could well be confidentiality issues related to this, however, I think there needs to be further pressure on changing the perception of community engagement in reporting concerns about a child. I am unsure of the methodology to achieve this, but perhaps something like public led campaigns. However, the key ingredient moving forward is beginning a dialogue between communities, children and professionals.
In reflecting on my experiences, I think more work could have been done to engage me directly, to see if I would have spoken about what was happening to me. For me it was not the case of encouraging me to open up, it was that nobody asked. I think children and young people need to have different opportunities to access safe spaces where trustworthy adults/professionals can have worthwhile engagement. This might be structured through various formal school support systems, but also, in more subtle ways for those children and young people who are sensitive to their peers noticing that they are accessing support. I believe that some professionals may worry about being perceived as ‘interfering’. Professionals can at times be hesitant to probe further and share their suspicions for fear of getting it wrong. I can recall incidents of unusual behaviour from teachers towards my parents that as an adult I realise now is because they were aware something was wrong but weren’t sure how to ask about it.
‘Blaming’ the young person
Feeling blamed by professionals is a common experience for young people subjected to CSE. A lot of work with CSE tends to focus on the child with an expectation by the professional system that they need to change. Professionals can appear to be reprimanding the young person, and implying: “you need to stop this horrible thing from happening to you”.
CSE risk assessments which rely on scoring can contribute to this dynamic. It was my experience, that week-to-week, I felt I was being judged against a scoring assessment framework. If my situation seemed to have deteriorated, a worker might comment in a frustrated manner: “you have increased your score now!”. Professionals can appear overly concerned about scores and less concerned about what needs are going unmet for the young person. Dr Sophie Hallett’s research broadly defines this as ‘risk adverse led’ practice (Hallett, et al.,2019).
There needs to be more curiosity about what is going on behind the scores. Thankfully, in response to criticisms, this risk assessment approach is coming to an end in Wales. My concern is that some of the replacement guidance on this matter is vague, and professionals can resort back to familiar ways of working. There needs to be greater focus on working “with” rather than “doing to” young people. Dr Hallett’s work on a “wellbeing led systems” is underpinned by this ethos (Hallett, et al.,2019). Many of my personal and professional experiences have resonated with the research undertaken on CSE by Dr Sophie Hallett, partly because my experiences contributed to some of that research.
Professionals working with children understandably focus on making things safe for the child but can overlook the child’s underlying needs. This makes me mindful of Article 12 of the UN Convention on The Rights of Child and the notion that young people should be actively involved with decision making about them. Too often, it is the child who is being sexually abused who is moved, with the intention of keeping them safe, but with the outcome that they are taken away from their support networks. Professional interventions may focus on changing a young person’s unhealthy strategies for meeting needs, however once this is achieved, unmet needs still remain. An example of this may be preventing a young person from interacting with a peer group because they are as risky yet providing no alternative peer relationships meaning the young person’s need for belonging becomes unmet. Overall, there needs to be less focus on educative work and safety – first approaches and more emphasis on holistic and trauma-informed approaches, with the latter approach underpinning all stages of work with young people. This is the focus that I am trying to bring to the Boys 2 resource where we are emphasising a child-focused, holistic approach.
Image credit for illustrations © 2019 Laura Sorvala and Dr Sophie Hallett
Rigid assumptions about young people
CSE was first raised as an issue for me when I was 16 years old. Concerns were raised by a manager of a homeless youth hostel where I was staying. I was living in supported accommodation at the time as I had a relationship breakdown with my Mum. The referral asserted that I was ‘at risk’, not that I was putting other people at risk. At an initial Child Protection Strategy Meeting, the way in which I was described implied that I was acting as a perpetrator rather than being a victim. I think the concern was that I was involved in peer exploitation, i.e. I was being groomed to groom other young people. This was a schema about me that professionals seemed to get stuck with. Assumptions were likely made about me in part due to my gender and the association between maleness and being a perpetrator rather than a victim.
It has been my experience that girls are generally treated significantly better by professionals in this type of scenario; girls generally seem to be firmly categorised as a victim. Looking back, I recall that I was aware of this gender divide at the time. The police had become involved with me due to the incident that triggered concerns about possible CSE. I remember chatting to the hostel manager at the time and saying to him that I was going to be blamed for what had happened. I think this is about the messages that we receive, that men ‘do’ and woman are ‘done to’. It is striking to me that I was aware of this, even at 16 years old.
Looking at the record of the initial strategy meeting, it was fascinating how little context was given and there were no substantial contributions from anyone who had met me. For example, I was identified as presenting with some risk factors for CSE, e.g. ‘having unexplained amounts of money’. However, the money I had was not actually ‘unexplained’, I had in fact been given £200 by my grandmother for Christmas. No one asked me about this, so I couldn’t give my side of the story. As noted above, Article 12 of UNCRC informs that children and young people should be involved in decisions and assessments about them. It is my view that decision-making forums about children and young people should ensure that the respective children’s views are sought and should explicitly note where this consultation might not have occurred and the reasons behind this.
I am very interested in inter-professional working and this is something that I would like to research further in the future, perhaps via a PhD. It is my sense that professionals can be too cooperative with one another. There is an emphasis on professional ‘politeness’ which focuses too much on the idea of working collaboratively together, rather than on why something isn’t working for a young person. It is important to ask questions about how the professional system around a young person might need to change, so that things can work for the young person. It is about remembering that the young person is the most important aspect of the work and making space for proactive professional challenge.
One of the activities that I am helping to adapt in the Boys 2 resource is an ‘iceberg’ activity to help professionals working with young people think about what behaviours they might observe in young people experiencing CSE. The tool helps professionals to consider the huge amount that is going on underneath for the young person. In the new edition of the resource, this tool will be used for training staff, so looking beyond intervention work between an individual child and practitioner. In this context, the hope is that it will help professionals to challenge one another in their practice with young people. The hope is that the resource can be used by different professionals, in different settings.
Connection and Relationships
I am very interested in authenticity in relationships between professionals and young people. I have been influenced by Radically Open Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (RO DBT) which describes authenticity between the therapist and the person they are working with. This is built through vulnerable self-disclosure as a way to model radical openness to promote social connectedness (Lynch, Hempel and Dunkley, 2015) This is a key factor when you consider that research shows that boys and young men who are victims of CSE are significantly more socially lonely (Barnardos, 2018)
Hallett (2017) stresses the importance of interdependency and reciprocity as an effective response to CSE. Interdependency and reciprocity take place when the young person and the worker are in a two-way relationship that is built from a personal commitment to one another beyond the job.
Both of these aspects align with the values and practices around relationship development in youth work built on honest and reciprocity (Young, 2006) and the importance of association with others (Jeffs and Smith, 2010).
In my experience of being a young person and working with professionals, I encountered both good and bad, both of which taught me things. The positive experiences were informed by workers who took the time to build a relationship with me. These workers were very reflective and thought they had as much to learn from me as I had to learn from them.
Reflection – Avoiding projection and practicing professional self-care
Reflective practice is important to me. I have developed a number of strategies to look after myself. Sometimes I have had to consider whether I am projecting an experience I have had, onto to someone else. Throughout my studies at university there were many opportunities to develop and hone my skills in reflective practice. I try to ensure that I ‘fact check’ with young people I work with to explore with them whether I have understood their version of events. I am careful not to talk about my own experiences. I try to give myself space to think about why I might think and feel certain things in the work, but I also remember that we are all only human, and not infallible. It is ok and important to admit to young people that you can misunderstand and get things wrong.
To conclude, the process of writing this article has entailed collaboration, reflection and learning for both myself, as an early stage professional, and for Anna, as a more experienced practitioner. It has felt to me that this model of working perhaps mirrors some of the best practice approaches in the field of CSE. This includes a commitment to listening, co-learning and being challenged by those we work with. As a continuing survivor of CSE, I draw on my experiences to distil developments in practice for myself and others. Like all painful moments or difficulties, this will always be a part of me, but it is not something which has to negatively define me. Potential for learning can come from taking the time to reflect on the parts of ourselves that may be unexamined and painful. I am reminded of a song by Imagine Dragons, entitled ‘Believer’ which takes the concept of learning from human pain. I think there is much to be said of channelling one’s untapped strength, to bridge the gap of the personal and the professional.
Adam Richard Kaps, Trainer (Volunteer), Barnardos
Anna Hutchings, Social Worker and PhD doctoral researcher,
University of Sussex
Barnardos (2018) Boys 2: Supporting Boys and Young Men to Develop Healthy Sexual Relationships – Key Findings. Essex: Barnardos. Available at:
Hallett, S. (2017) Making sense of child sexual exploitation: Exchange, Abuse and Young People. Bristol: Policy Press
Hallett, S., Verbruggen, J.,Buckley,K., and Robinson, A. (2019) Keeping Safe? Cardiff: Cardiff University. Available at:
Jeffs, T., and Smith, M.(2010) ‘Introducing Youth Work’ in Jeffs, T., and Smith, M. (ed.) Youth Work Practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
Lynch, T., Hempel, R. and Dunkley, C., (2015). Radically Open-Dialectical Behavior Therapy for Disorders of Over-Control: Signaling Matters. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 69(2), pp.141-162. Available at:
Young, K. (2006) The Art of Youth Work. 2nd Ed. Lyme Regis: Russell House Publishing Ltd.