Child Exploitation Integration, Digital Delivery, Learning and Reflections, Programme Priorities

Joining the dots – tackling child exploitation during COVID-19


The Tackling Child Exploitation (TCE) Support Programme is now at its half-way point as a programme, and is finding its stride in a complex and fast-paced landscape.

The programme, which consists of a website and Bespoke Support Projects aimed at supporting local partnerships achieve strategic change in relation to child exploitation and extra-familial harm, is now delivering at full capacity. This despite, like everyone, having had to rethink and adapt much of our approach in the wake of coronavirus (COVID-19) related restrictions.

Whilst initially challenging, reframing our approach into one capable of being delivered digitally also afforded us the time and opportunity to really reflect on what makes our approach unique and why we do things in the way that we do.

Very early on – in our pilot delivery phase – it became clear that what local partnerships valued from us most was the opportunity to ‘slow down’: to have us create and hold the conceptual space for them to identify shared priorities and realign existing resources and unlock capacity.

Local areas have diverse profiles in relation to child exploitation and extra-familial harm, the nature and scale of harm varies, as do local structures and strengths. Understanding local context is therefore crucial in developing an effective strategic response. Whilst there are certainly regional and national patterns and trends, our biggest reflection as a programme has been that common to all partnerships is how important key leadership behaviours are to an effective strategic response: behaviours that directly reflect and respond to the experiences of their young people, families, communities and practitioners.

In a landscape as complex (at times possibly overwhelming) as that of child exploitation, we believe that modelling certain key behaviours can help partnerships gain meaningful traction on strategic issues. To provide support, as well as critical challenge, we have increasingly sought to emphasise three guiding principles: ‘leading with care’, ‘bridging boundaries’ and ‘holding uncertainty, complexity and curiosity’. These themes are collectively articulated as ‘joining the dots’: a means to help local leaders link and apply the learning, research and evidence we have in relation to child exploitation and extra familial harm to their own actions.

So, when faced with a task of considerable challenge and complexity ourselves – understanding and responding to the impact of COVID-19 related restrictions on the strategic child exploitation landscape – we turned to our own Joining the Dots framework to test whether it was helpful.

As a programme we pulled together a mixed-method approach that drew heavily on the principles of Action Research to try to make sense of what we were seeing in relation to child exploitation and extra-familial harm in our new, altered, reality. As well as undertaking a rapid literature review and scoping an evidence-informed approach to digital delivery, we facilitated a series of workshops with strategic leaders and policy makers (in ‘listening mode’) to explore what they were seeing across the country. The detail of what we found has been published as an open access article titled ‘Joining the dots? Tackling child exploitation during COVID-19’ in Journal of Children’s Services.

As you might perhaps expect in relation to child exploitation, we found almost as many differences and variations as we did similarities. This presented a real challenge when trying to analyse and usefully reflect back what we were hearing to local partnerships.

Using Joining the Dots helped us to slow down. We used it as a framework to dig deeper and really question how and why what we were being told was important. If ever there is a temptation to be reactionary then responding to a global pandemic has got to come close to the top of that list! But we wanted to offer something different. To move beyond the noise to articulate what would make a real difference. In addition the myriad questions being asked of the sector, it emerged that some other fundamental questions deserve attention:

• Are we all modelling compassionate leadership? What evidence (beyond anecdote) do we have to help us to understand the lived reality for young people, their families and communities right now? How can we respond in a way that builds empathy and trust between communities, and between communities and professionals?
• Are the right people working together? In the rush to respond are we thinking laterally enough and including colleagues from education, adult social care, and housing and the faith and community sector, as well as statutory safeguarding partners? Are we connecting up and responding to the whole of who people and communities are?
• Are we rushing too quickly to a response? Have we sat with the complexity long enough to spot unintended consequences (for example, have we considered the ethics and potential disbenefits of practitioners using social media to communicate with young people) and are we being curious enough about what we think we’re seeing? And in navigating this complexity are we providing the right level of strategic leadership to support partnerships through uncertainty?

We know from our initial scoping work and year one delivery that there is a constant pressure felt within the sector to respond to child exploitation issues definitively and at pace: this pressure was reportedly heightened even further during COVID-19 related restrictions. Whilst pace was welcomed as giving positive permission for innovation, the associated risk with this pressure to react is to squeeze out the time for reflection. Local and national leaders alike have a key role in ensuring that the sector has permission to take time to think, to reflect on purpose and to ensure all allies are included before pushing ahead with action.

Over and again we find that the most constructive disruption we can offer to the system in relation to child exploitation and extra-familial harm is to encourage colleagues to slow down. At a time of extraordinary pressure and pace, it has never been more important to pause, to join the dots and craft responses that are vigorous, but also compassionate, robust and evidence-informed. As the saying goes, and it’s true both of how we tackle child exploitation and how we work during a pandemic, it’s a marathon not a sprint.

Related resources

Learning to support strategic leaders in tackling child exploitation – TCE website
Developing a strategic response to tackle child exploitation and extra-familial harm
Tackling child exploitation – leading with care, blurring boundaries and holding complexity, uncertainty and curiosity
Young people facing risk outside the home: exploring the implications of COVID-19

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