He was a child and no, he couldn’t look after himself. CSE

‘He’s a strapping lad, he can look after himself.’ That was what the police officer said to me after I’d reported my child missing. My son was tall for his age, but he was a child, made more vulnerable because he was targeted by a skilled exploiter online, who used manipulation, coercion and control in order to abuse him.

My son is now a young adult, living in an abusive and violent relationship with his exploiter and no, he can’t look after himself. The male controls all areas of my son’s life and when I have managed to see him it has left me heartbroken to see my beautiful boy, a shell of his former self.

I feel such grief and each day I have to find a way to put one foot in front of the other when I feel as if a part of me and my family is lost. I fear for his future. The thing is, my story could have been very different if the safeguarding agencies I involved had seen my son for what he was; a sexually exploited and vulnerable child that needed protection and support.

Agencies failed my son and my family in many ways, including not working in partnership with his dad and me, doing the opposite of what I asked which sabotaged the information and intelligence I was trying to gather. The biggest failing though was bias. The failure to see that it doesn’t matter whether children are tall or short, male or female, heterosexual or gay and lesbian, what race, culture or class they’re from, it doesn’t matter what they wear or how they talk, they all deserve protection from adults targeting them for sexual exploitation. Agencies looked at my son and thought that his tallness meant he was an adult, that his gender meant that he could protect himself and his sexuality made him seem less worthy of safeguarding.

Agencies spoke to my son and failed to see that what he was saying was not ‘consent’ but a confused and abused child being told what to say and coached by a skilled manipulator and exploiter.

As a mum, I knew something wasn’t right, but like most parents, you try to make sense of the changes you can see happening, but you only get glimpses and fragments and the full picture is out of sight. It’s difficult trying to know what is happening and it’s harder when agencies aren’t listening to you or are minimising what you are telling them.

When agencies are alerted to a child suspected of being sexually exploited, I’d ask that they remember that there is no excuse for allowing and colluding with child abuse.

To any parent facing agency excuses for their child being abused, I share your pain and I hope you have the strength to keep stating to agencies involved, ‘my child is a child and needs you to see that you have a duty of protection.’