Beyond the tip of the iceberg – surviving criminal exploitation

I am a mother of a SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) young person, who has been a victim of child criminal exploitation.

Due to unmet SEND issues and years of school exclusions his behaviour spiralled out of control over the years. I knew my son had underlying issues, but the education system refused to listen and believed it was more ASBO, home-related issues. I felt very blamed.

My son would smash up his bedroom daily through anger and frustration. Sometimes this was as soon as he opened his eyes without any communication from anyone. He would threaten to slash people’s throats if they stood in his way. He would hide knives, hammers, and screwdrivers in his beside drawers. He was constantly stoned on cannabis and his mental health deteriorated. He started taking knives out to the street to ‘protect himself’ and he was threatening to kill himself and others. It was as if he was possessed. He was literally destroying all his furniture in front of us and we could not stop him. He was hurting himself in the process, we felt it was safer for him if we called the police so they could call the mental health team and stop him hurting himself. Each time we called the police, they would call the out of hour’s mental health team, and the mental health would refer to CAMHS. I would cry myself to sleep every night. We were desperate for help. I begged for help from CAHMS, school, Children’s First Hub and finally social services.

Despite all the agencies involved, we felt very alone. It was like being in a washing machine, a vicious circle – every agency passing it on. Like a hot potato that no one wanted to touch.

Finally, I paid for private assessments about my son’s SEND needs, at a great cost, and I’m concerned how families without such funds manage the systems to get the appropriate support.

I was introduced to our social worker in January 2021, and I remember telling her she was our last hope. The social worker appeared to be listening and I felt a huge sigh of relief. I was still trying to work full-time at home in a very demanding high-profile job. Every day my son would wake up extremely angry, he would start smashing things if I was on a conference call. I reported everything to our social worker, and we had weekend crisis support. However, nothing changed. The violence continued and my son started going missing early hours of the morning. I would often wake up in the middle of the night to find him gone. I reported every incident to our social worker and eventually he met the criteria for the child criminal exploitation team..

On arrival, our child exploitation worker seemed to understand more than any other professional did. She had some SEND training, but I continued to feel that each time services looked at our son they saw ‘the tip of iceberg’. They saw ‘behaviour,’ not the cause.

My husband and I were sent on parenting courses. Services wanted to address the cannabis, but I wanted to know ‘why’- why had our son turned to cannabis? Why was our son so angry?

As months went by, my son’s health kept on deteriorating. Whilst our child exploitation worker was working hard to engage him, it proved impossible. He had hit mental health crisis and was suicidal.

The final blow came when our child exploitation worker said whilst our son was vulnerable, there was no evidence of ‘active’ exploitation, and they would have to close the case.

This nearly destroyed me. My husband and I were left to deal with a ticking time bomb. We knew our son would end up either in prison or worse.

I couldn’t let that happen. I had to go beyond the surface, to get to the bottom of the iceberg. I had to find out what was going on and why our son had gone down this path.

I spent night after night setting alarms early hours to sneak into his room and, whilst he was asleep, I was hacking into his phone. I took screen shots of text messages, WhatsApp, photos, telephone numbers, phone calls, literally anything I could find. I knew I was potentially incriminating my own son, but it was a risk I was prepared to take. I often found myself thinking I would rather him be in prison getting the help he needed than on the streets doing drugs and being exploited. Our child exploitation worker was flooded with evidence.

My evidence finally led to the ‘exploiters’.

Strangely, at that point there was a shift from ‘parent blaming’.

Whilst all this was going on, I was fighting the local authority about SEND issues I believed my son had. I knew nothing about SEND but I was determined to find out the ‘why’. I privately commissioning professionals to assess my child. I was joining Facebook groups for support and guidance. I linked in with many SEND families via Facebook; one group led me to another and another. I was determined to dig way beyond the cannabis use. I wanted to understand what was beneath the tip of the iceberg. I was successful at tribunal. My son has many diagnosed complex needs; he is autistic, ADHD, learning difficulties and significant mental health issues. I successfully obtained an appropriate EHCP (Education Health Care Plan) at tribunal. My son’s needs are now being met. Once adaptations due to his needs were put in place, he was able to engage with the child exploitation work.

To parents reading this, I’d say- you are the experts of your children.

Believe in yourself and believe in your children. Services need more training, training beyond the typical ‘safeguarding model’. We need to stand up and challenge parent-blaming culture and remind services where the blame lies.

It is not always at home. If you can, encourage services to THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX!