January 25, 2022 Programme Blogs, Risk Beyond the victim/offender binary PublicationBy Amanda Radley Late last year, I contributed to a Tackling Child Exploitation (TCE) learning event centred on exploring the tension around classifying young people as either victims or offenders. It’s an important topic for me, as I have observed this tension throughout my career working with adults and children. As a qualified social worker, I have worked in both probation services and local authorities and these experiences have given me unique insight into these challenges. My current role is an independent consultant supporting local authorities to improve their response to adolescent needs and harm. I also work within British Transport Police’s (BTP) Operation Defiant, which has been funded to disrupt County Lines. I’ve spent considerable time focusing on the challenges that criminal exploitation present, especially the dilemmas for professionals. How can we best meet the needs of those being exploited? How do we improve young people’s safety? How can we focus most effectively on the perpetrators of child exploitation? Discussion at the TCE event often focused on the idea of professional curiosity and how critical this is to improving our approach to young people at risk of exploitation. However, I suspect the term ‘curiosity’ means different things to different organisations.For me, professional curiosity is critical when working with young people because it means a range of professional attitudes, behaviours and ways of thinking about child exploitation. For example, avoiding making assumptions, the value of openness, the power of empathy and the importance of respect. Professional curiosity can also help us understand our roles, and those of our multi-agency colleagues, and give us the courage to ask difficult questions of ourselves, of others, and of the children we work with. In my capacity as a consultant and in my role within BTP, being curious helps me avoid jumping to conclusions and supports me to reflect on what has happened while remaining open to potential solutions. Conversation at the learning event also centred on the power of labelling young people with the terms ‘victim’ or ‘perpetrator / offender’. Labels are very powerful and can affect young people’s access to services and how they will be responded to within multiple systems. Historically, from a police perspective, a child over the age of 10 arrested for committing an offence would be held responsible for their actions (unless sentenced according to the terms of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998). The challenge here is to be able to view an arrested child as potentially both a victim and the perpetrator of a crime. Does it sound straightforward? In reality, it isn’t (see these short films). We know that, often, children and young people will not tell us what is really going on for them and will not want to present as ‘victims’. This may be because they are fearful of the consequences, or because they have been so effectively groomed that they don’t see themselves as victims. The criminal justice system is binary, with different processes and procedures depending on one’s primary status as a victim or offender (as discussed in these interviews). If the police treat a child as a victim, they will be working with children’s social care from a child protection perspective. As a perpetrator of crime, Pace procedures are followed, searches are undertaken, and powers are enacted, like seizing phones to gather evidence. In the context of county lines, there is often a significant risk of violence to the child and their family. The child themselves may also pose some risk and all agencies have a duty to protect the public and prevent future harm to others (read more about vulnerable children and county lines). This complexity is challenging. In my experience, strategy meetings can sometimes feel a bit stuck and solutions are hard to agree on. While an arrest is often the police starting point, this doesn’t mean we should criminalise a child. Rather, an arrest can present an opportunity to gather information, investigate who may be exploiting the child and consider how a partnership of agencies can take action to improve the child’s safety and better meet their needs. The crux of really gripping and grasping these situations is finding professionals who are able to empathise with and care about the child. This work isn’t easy, and empathy takes time and energy to cultivate. Exploited young people need us to feel compassion for them, to fight for them and to keep pushing for the solutions that will improve their safety and help them feel cared for by those who can protect them.