This week Lucie Shuker reflects on the BBC drama ‘Three Girls’ and how it highlights some of the issues raised by a recently published evaluation of the work of Parents Against Child Sexual Exploitation (Pace) in Lancashire.
Like many others, I sat down to watch the BBC drama ‘Three Girls’ a couple of weeks ago with a sense of anticipation and dread. It is based on the real-life cases of girls who were groomed and then sexually exploited by multiple men in Rochdale, but sadly many aspects of the girls’ experiences are common among all children (including boys and young men) who suffer this form of sexual abuse. It is, and should be, a difficult watch – but it is also hugely important in helping us hold the reality of the abuse these children suffer in our individual and public consciousness.
The impact of abuse on a family
Many of the moments portrayed on screen will stay with me, but I was particularly struck by scenes involving the family of the main character ‘Holly’ which highlighted the severe strain that child sexual exploitation (CSE) can place on the home. In the drama, we saw this play out in several ways:
- The parents’ anger and confusion at Holly staying out late or overnight, and drinking with other girls, who were also being groomed by this group of men.
- Her mum and dad sitting in their dressing gowns at the kitchen table in distress after Holly discloses that she has been raped, trying to make sense of why she got back into a car with the same man who had attacked her only days before.
- A sexual health worker sitting with the parents and explaining that their daughter is not a prostitute, and answering their question ‘Why didn’t she just come home?’ by saying ‘Because she’s ashamed, and confused and terrified’.
Many of these dynamics and experiences were familiar, having recently completed an evaluation of a project delivered by Parents against child sexual exploitation (Pace) which centred on the work of a Parent Liaison Officer (PLO) placed in the multi-agency CSE ‘Engage’ team in Blackburn with Darwen, Lancashire.
Evaluating the work of the Parent Liaison Officer
The evaluation confirmed the findings of previous research and wider reviews that highlight the range of ways that parents and families can suffer when a child is sexually exploited. These include: negative impact on physical, mental and emotional wellbeing; social isolation; being threatened or harassed by perpetrators; and relationships in the home coming under severe strain (Kosaraju, 2009; Palmer and Jenkins, 2014; Pace, 2016; Unwin and Stephens-Lewis, 2016). Recent DfE guidance on CSE identifies that parents and carers can also feel excluded by professionals in cases of CSE. It affirms that they should be seen as part of the solution, and some may need direct support and help to improve family relationships and keep their child safe (DfE, 2017:14).
The PLO offers flexible, one-to-one support to parents and families whose child is at risk, or a victim, of CSE including: giving information about CSE; helping the family to develop safety plans to protect the child; providing emotional support; advocating for the family and liaising with/sign-posting to other agencies. We interviewed parents who had received one-to-one support from the PLO, professionals who had worked alongside the PLO in the Engage team, and observed the team at work. We also ran a focus group with four parents, collected evaluation forms from parents and interviewed PLOs.
Many of our findings reflected the conclusions of previous evaluations of Pace. For example, data showed that the PLO has a positive impact on the way other agencies handle CSE cases, and the report itself goes into some detail about this. But here I will focus on three key areas of impact within the family itself.
PLO outcomes for parents
1. Parents increasing their awareness and understanding of CSE
All the parents who took part in the evaluation told us that the Parent Liaison Officer had helped them understand CSE. The family in ‘Three Girls’ needed to be told that their daughter was being controlled and abused. Similarly, parents we spoke to explained that understanding how children could be manipulated and groomed helped them place responsibility for the abuse on the perpetrator, which in turn helped them not to blame either their child or themselves as parents. Parents also reported that understanding the grooming process helped them to make sense of times when their child’s behaviour had been avoidant, hostile or out of character, which helped them to respond more empathetically to their child.
Knowing that it’s nothing I’ve done wrong as a parent, and absolutely nothing that my daughter’s done wrong herself… So it’s knowing that – the control is in the hands of the predators. (Parent 9)
2. Parents playing a more active part in safeguarding their child
We found that the Parent Liaison Officer empowers parents to safeguard their children through supporting them to develop and implement safety plans. These plans help parents report their children missing and share information with the police and other services. We saw in ‘Three Girls’ how debilitating and confusing CSE can be for parents when they feel they can’t do anything to stop the abuse. Within the evaluation parents reported that, by implementing safety plans, they had more control in the home and greater confidence in their capacity to protect their child. When parents are supported to share information with other agencies this helps those agencies make better safeguarding decisions for the child, siblings and their peers, and can affect the direction and outcome of police investigations into CSE cases as well.
When there was any information about the things the girls were doing, I was passing everything to (the PLO) and she was passing it to the police. She was telling me how to log everything, how to get as much things across as possible and every single bit of information to give it to try and keep the girls safe. (Parent 6)
3. Parents more emotionally resilient
Parents also described themselves as more emotionally resilient and able to cope with the impact of CSE because of the Parent Liaison Officer’s support. Being able to talk to the PLO reduced their isolation, and the encouragement helped them manage their emotions through the distress of various situations related to their child’s exploitation. Again, we saw families in the BBC drama having to absorb a judgement from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) that no charges would be brought in their cases because their children would likely be perceived as unreliable witnesses. The evaluation found that in situations like these parents valued the emotional support offered by the PLO and some parents and Engage professionals credited this support with getting children and families to attend court.
I wouldn’t have been able to go to the trial. There was so much, even the emotional support I got, I don’t know, I would have been a nervous wreck. I was anyway, but still I had that support there… She was sat down there and I was watching all the time, and to know she was there it made a big difference. (Parent 6)
At the end of Three Girls we see a family that has come through a series of deeply distressing experiences, sitting and enjoying each other’s company in the park on a sunny day. While it is a hopeful end, there are many others like them who are likely to need support now and in the future as they respond to the impact of CSE on their child and family.
The evaluation should therefore be of interest to anyone supporting children or families in cases of CSE, as well as those with strategic oversight of services. The full report of the evaluation can be found on our website and viewed below.
Department for Education (2017) Child sexual exploitation: Definition and a guide for practitioners, local leaders and decision makers working to protect children from child sexual exploitation.
Kosaraju, A. (2009) The true cost to families of child sexual exploitation. Leeds, CROP.
Palmer, E. and Jenkins, P. (2014) Parents as Partners in Safeguarding Children: An evaluation of Pace’s work in Four Lancashire Child Sexual Exploitation teams October 2010 – October 2012 Lancaster University/Pace
Parents Against Child Sexual Exploitation – Pace (2016). Parents Speak Out Crucial partners in tackling Child Sexual Exploitation. Leeds: Pace
Unwin, P. and Stephens-Lewis, D. (2016) Evaluating the Health Implications of Child Sexual Exploitation on Parents. University of Worcester