How a father’s journey with Children’s Social Care Services has transformed into a lasting partnership

Interview with affected father, Buckinghamshire

How are you making a difference in your local area regarding CSE?

As a parent whose child was sexually exploited, I’m included within the Children’s Safeguarding Boards sub-group for child exploitation (CE). I support the training of professionals alongside a child exploitation partnership across my local authority. I have regular conversations with Amanda, the Head of Children’s Social Care Services and her bosses about how Buckinghamshire is responding to CE.

I give informal peer support to other affected parents I’ve met through what I do – just knowing someone else has a shared understanding of such difficult experiences makes such a difference.

How did you make the journey from a parent receiving support to a parent working alongside professionals in the response to child exploitation?

A big part of my journey was deciding to let go of the anger and blame.

I can’t tell any parent out there how to do that because I’ve no idea how I did that- it just happened. I was so angry at everyone for a while – angry at the offenders, at all of the professionals and at myself. I’m always telling other parents not to blame yourself and I believe that. When I found out that my daughter had been exploited it was like the ground had opened up.

You feel such pain, it’s like a part of you dies. There’s a 1,000 light bulb moment where things you couldn’t make sense of suddenly do. As a parent you’re responsible for your child and I felt smashed, guilty and as if I’d failed in my responsibility. I don’t want any parent to feel like that, but I think it’s hard not to and it’s something you have to find a way through.

For years I’d be reaching out to services and telling them things and it felt like nobody recognised what was happening. I feel that my child wasn’t seen as abused and deeply distressed, but as a naughty girl by professionals. They couldn’t help me to understand what was going on because, in my opinion, at that time, they couldn’t spot it.

The sexual exploitation of my child was recognised, years later. There was a spotlight on what had happened, but I didn’t feel as if we were really offered the right support to deal with such traumatic events. Listening to professionals talking, I realised we could be responding to this so much better.

I realised that I could stand on the outside and throw rocks at all the services that I’d felt so frustrated with, or I could find a way in and work with agencies to change it.

I thought about all the other families going through this. I thought about the kind of support children need to be able to be able to find their way to a life without abuse. I picked up the phone and rang the Head of Children’s Services and said, ‘We need to talk’ and that person heard me.

I feel strongly that anyone affected by CSE should get the support they need to be able to live as normal a life as they can after such difficult experiences. I think it’s a right that we should all fight for. I do what I do now because, well, there’s something inside me that has to; I know the catastrophic impact it has on children and I have to do all I can to stop it.

To other parents reading this and wanting to get involved in local or national action what would you want to say to them?

I know it’s not for everyone. Some of the ways I had to change in order to make it work may be too difficult for parents who are still in the middle of it.

As a parent I had a sense of utter helplessness. Taking action has been part of my journey to reclaim what was taken from our family.

Child sexual exploitation should offend every single sense a human being has. The community, families, professionals in social care, the police, education, non-government organisations and all of the policy makers should care about this issue and want to find solutions. Parents are needed in the solution. Parents affected understand the issue and for me, I’ve always got an eye out for how an intervention affects a family. I’m always asking, ‘is it actually helping?’

Everyone’s different, but for me I wanted to get inside these organisations and create positive changes. I had to change in order to do that. There can be such blame. Blame at parents, parents blaming services, social care at the police, police at social care. If I’d have gone in angry and blaming, professionals would have put up their defences and we’d have got nowhere and I’d have changed nothing. I realised that if we want to make the situation better, we needed to shift from the blame culture and focus on creating solutions together. If you go into strategic partnerships you’ve got to create trust and mutual respect. It doesn’t mean you are always going to agree, but keep going and be consistent. Everyone needs to be working together in real partnerships and sharing the load to create solutions to CE.

It helps me to focus on the outcomes I want- such as training professionals to see and understand child exploitation, creating a partnership response to CE, giving parents the support, understanding and tools to support their child and doing all we can to really support children affected to get to a place where they can live as well as they possibly can. I can’t explain the trauma you go through as a parent when this issue affects you and knowing that I’m doing something to help parents get the support they need helps me to keep going.

I’d tell other parents what I tell myself- manage your expectations. Sometimes I come out of meetings and feel irritated that things aren’t moving as quickly as I feel it needs to. There’s a lot of bureaucracy in social care, the police and mental health. You need to accept that changing cultures and mind-sets, building trust and changing systems takes time. It can feel frustrating, but look at what you are changing. It helped me to listen to the police and social care perspective, instead of just focusing on my own.

Find your allies and build on those relationships. As soon as I met Amanda Andrews the head of services for Children’s Services I knew she was a CE champion and that ‘she got it.’

Is there anything else you’ve learnt that you want to share?

Keep going. When things get hard, or you disagree, it’s easy to walk away, but it’s finding a way, together, through the hard times that actually builds a true team.

Amanda and I respond to difficulties by pulling together tighter and digging deeper and it brings us through this stronger.

Have faith in yourself. It’s going to feel a bit uncomfortable as you sit there with all the professionals, or stand up at a training event. You may feel like a token parent and wonder what you’re doing there. You’re there because creating a safer environment for children matters to you. It gets easier until one day; you’ll know you have every right to be there.

Keep being curious. Keep asking questions. If something is going to be put in place, ask if it is really going to make a difference to people affected by CE. You may get on each other’s nerves, but try to remember to respect each other- together you can change things.

Look after yourself. I found people I could talk to. Reach out to get the support you need.

Whatever you’re doing, remember from tiny acorns, great oaks grow.

Interview with Amanda Andrews, Head of Children’s Services, Buckinghamshire

Can you tell us about your role?

I joined Buckinghamshire children’s services in 2018. As Head of Service in Children’s Services I oversee the Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub and have responsibilities for child exploitation (CE) including assessments, Missing from Home, out of hours’ team and the Missing and Exploitation Hub. Part of my review of the service was to ask questions. Questions- about child exploitation in this locality, how was the specialist Child Sexual Exploitation unit specialist? What was the landscape for young people in our area? Were we recognising the exploitation of boys or did we assume it was only girls who were exploited sexually? What about the county lines issues? I think some of the challenge outside inner cities is that ‘it couldn’t happen here’. It does unfortunately.

Can you tell us about your approach to child exploitation?

I’m not saying we are the leading light on child exploitation, but we’re determined. I think we need to challenge each other, feel safe to ask questions and be questioned, recognise where we need further information and where we need to change. Creating healthy and frank conversations and strong relationships across different key services and within the community is vital. This is not something that we can arrest our way out of, nor can we place every child at risk of exploitation on a child protection plan.

You can have the best policies, but if people are not wedded to the idea of keeping children safe then you are going to struggle. We need to create a common goal that is inclusive in that everyone (agencies, police, social care, education, health, youth services, parents and our community) is not going to tolerate our children being exploited.

Practically, we’ve considered how not to duplicate work and meetings. We’ve secured ongoing funding for a parent worker (not a social worker) to work alongside parents where there are concerns that a child is being exploited.

Our hope is that parents can start to feel supported by safeguarding agencies and more in control of what is often an out of control situation. The hub for CE that includes colleagues from health, Barnardos, police, social care, professional by experience, missing person’s coordinator, police analyst, police engagement officers outlines their roles and issues of child exploitation to professionals within their organisations across our local authority.

Whilst the Children’s Act is there to protect children it doesn’t ordinarily address the issue of risk to children from organised crime that is outside of the home/familial environment. Our Multi Agency meetings need to be forums where we can bring parents and young people into those discussions. Some of these developments carry risks but that’s no reason to abandon them, rather we need to find ways to pursue them safely. We have locally raised the age of young people we work with up to 25 years and although we can’t invoke child protection processes with young people 18 and over we can work with families, housing, health, police and adult safeguarding to create networks of support.

We are networking with and connecting to the strengths in our community; seeing what people can bring to the table for us to respond to CE. As an example we made contact with the local football club and through that contact we have secured funding for a parent group for parents whose children are at risk of CE with the aim of strengthening our communities to tackle the issue. The football club have offered match tickets to help rebuild family time, provide a space for homework clubs and skill development so that we can strengthen our community.

If you help to create a community where everyone has their eyes on the children within it and are protecting them, then you are disrupting the abuse.

I’ve been asked how I will measure success in what we are doing and for me success will be when offenders exploiting children in our area, say- ‘Don’t bother with Bucks, it’s too much hassle, they’re all over it.’ Until then we keep going.

How are you working in partnership with parents?

I can’t see how we can tackle CE without parents. I can have all these great ideas and be meeting our statutory requirements, but I can’t deliver that without the perspective of someone who’s lived it and unless I incorporate that into what we are doing, I’m only delivering half a service if I do that.

The father you are interviewing is a partner by experience in the safeguarding children’s board. He and I talk and ideas and proposals came out of those discussions, this leads to conversations with key people and you begin to gather momentum. It’s a relationship where we challenge each other and bash heads sometimes- the parent will want to push things through and I may feel we’re not ready to implement certain actions, but we work together. The important thing for me is that the parent feels heard and I feel challenged! The father is a real partner and really gets his views across.

We met with the Director of Children’s Services and the chief Executive; it was so useful that the Chief Executive maintains contact with the father. The father still has links with affected parents and survivors and can feed in concerns at high strategic levels and have influence on relevant issues such as licencing and the late hour economy.

We’ve secured funding for a parent support worker who meets with parents where there are concerns for the safety of their children. Our aim is to give parents the information and connections they need to feel more empowered in difficult situations. We are going to evaluate the impact of this work.

We’ve created a parent only mail box for parents to post questions and give information. The parent support worker responds to this within the 9-5 of their work day.

Through the community partnerships and outreach to parents we are hoping to create supported groups of parents. In a particular locality (working in partnership with the football club) we are setting up forums for parents to talk to us about issues, what they think is needed, how they want to keep their children safe. We can learn from this experience and then work with these parents to roll out this model across other areas to create an army of parents who feel that they can be pro-active.

We are looking at ways to work with parents so that they feel part of what we are doing, so that they don’t feel powerless about what is happening to their children, so that they feel they have an equal role in bringing about justice for children and also so that they feel they can protect their children by affecting change.

To other parents and carers and Local Authorities, what would you say about the benefits and challenges of working in partnership with parents?

As a local authority we’re making inroads in working together to tackle Child Exploitation, but we still have a way to go. I’d like to be in a position to be able to help parents by saying, ‘hold on in there, we are finding our way to work together to keep children safe’ and to other Local Authorities, ‘we can do this and it isn’t so hard.’

I don’t think you can do this work without parents. It’s important to recognise that parents have unique insights that professionals may not have.

I need to listen and let parents know that I’ve heard them, even if I can’t do what they’re asking. Parents may feel angry and frustrated because of difficult experiences with agencies. As Head of Children’s Services coming newly into post, I needed to not just listen but hear what was being said. By ‘hear’ I mean I had to ensure I was understanding exactly what was being said by clarifying. Criticism can be difficult to hear, particularly when there’s elements of truth.

It came to a time though when I had to say to the Father, I’ve heard you, I really have, but now you need to decide whether you want to be an activist or a partner because if you’re a partner we need to find a way to move on from the past and focus on what we can do now. If you want to stay an activist, I’m not sure how we can work in partnership; I don’t know how we can take this forward. It’s a difficult thing to say and I don’t think we could have had that conversation without first building a relationship. Part of that relationship building was that I had to hear how wrong we had got it in the past.

Here is this parent still trying to get the Local Authority to understand their perspective when it’s probably the umpteenth time they have had to tell that story. That is some resilience on their part. Local Authorities have to build a relationship with parents, this takes time and I think we need to be mindful that parents in the throes of CE may need support initially, before becoming active partners.

To build relationships between safeguarding agencies and parents you need to understand what you both want- to look at your common goal. You also need to have clear boundaries, roles, confidentiality and expectations and communicate that transparently- this is what I will do, this is what I won’t do and this is what we’re doing to keep young people safe. Sometimes we need to clarify what we’re really saying, rather than making generalisations.

What advice would you give to other Local Authorities considering similar parent involvement?

Let’s be clear, I don’t have the golden chalice of how to get it right. I don’t know. We are finding our way.

Parents can give an honest and realistic perspective about CE that may be absent from the work of tackling CE if you don’t include that. If you’re going to embark on this path, identify affected parents and outline what you’re proposing and see if and how they want to be involved. You need to identify the parents in your community and you need to reach out to them.

Unfortunately, we still need to challenge our thinking in terms of how best to engage people.

Don’t underestimate the resourcefulness of parents and what they can bring. Parents have knowledge about what is happening out there and this can be effectively turned into intelligence for police analysts and we can begin to build local profiles.

Ask parents how they want to be supported, rather than assuming you know what they need. Recognise that there’s diversity in the community and different demographics and what they want is likely to differ.

I’m really fortunate and I think this is a point that needs making, that the Senior Leadership Team in Buckinghamshire support me in my role and are fully behind the work of the Missing and Exploitation Hub. You need to have that confidence from managers and head of services. I may have an idea for a development and the Director and Chief Executive will know what our capacity is and what funding we have, what is and isn’t possible and they’ll support me in strategically considering how it can work and what is needed. I don’t have to be fearful because together we’ll look at how we can make it work and if we can’t that will also be clear.

I’m sure a lot of Local Authorities will understand me when I say I’m tired of our children being exploited and I can’t keep doing the same thing and not seeing young people being safe, being successful and living to their full potential.

I think it’s time for us to be brave and try a different approach.