Supporting Child Victims of Sexual Exploitation Saves Both Lives and Money

13/09/2011 23:22 BST | Updated 13/11/2011 10:12 GMT

At Barnardo's, the work we do to help child victims of sexual exploitation takes time, commitment and expertise. There is no quick fix or instant solution.

With increased pressure on public finances, tough choices have to be made about how, why and where money is invested. I strongly believe that we have a duty to help inform the debate and to ensure that resources are directed towards those young people who are most in need in our society.

We know all too well from our work in this area that the emotional, psychological and physical effect of sexual exploitation on young people is hugely damaging - with the after effects often lasting long into adulthood.

However, until now we have known very little of the wider social and economic impact of sexual exploitation or the potential cost implications of failing to provide an adequate and effective response to the needs of victims.

Whilst the moral argument for helping girls and boys who are exploited for sex has always been strong - now we have tangible, economic evidence of the necessity for specialist help too.

A new report for Barnardo's by Pro Bono Economics reveals the effectiveness of specialist interventions and the estimated potential saving during a child victim's lifetime of £12 for every £1 spent.

'Reducing the risk, cutting the cost' shows that the this work not only reduces the risk of sexual exploitation and other highly correlated harmful factors - going missing, substance abuse and absence from education - but without appropriate intervention risks could rise further.

The potential average cost if a child doesn't receive help is £63,508 compared with £28,148 for a young person who has been supported.

We opened our first specialist service working with victims of sexual exploitation 16 years ago. Today, we run 20 services of this kind, providing specific and intensive support to more than 1,000 young people every year. These services offer a safe, confidential environment where young people can go for non-judgemental help, support and advice. For many vulnerable youngsters, struggling in a chaotic and abusive existence, this can be a lifeline.

Nothing shocks me more than the horrific nature of child sexual exploitation. Vulnerable, defenceless girls and boys who are craving love and attention are groomed and then abused, often for years on end, leaving them deeply traumatised and scarred for life.

The great tragedy is that more often than not the children are never cut free from their exploitation. It is hidden - taking place out of sight in our towns and cities. These children are failed by the professionals that don't spot the signs, they are failed by the lack of services and they are failed because we are closing our eyes to this crime and not seeing this as a child protection issue.

Sadly, the young people involved with our services can be considered the lucky ones. They have help. But what about the thousands of others who struggle with the weight of their abuse and with nowhere to turn to?

Emma was one teenager who we worked with who could have faced just that.

Excluded from school, isolated and angry, Emma had suffered a catalogue of neglect and abuse throughout her life. She started running away, sleeping rough and staying on friends' sofas.

This was when she met her 'boyfriend' - an older man, a man who she thought cared for her. He showered her with attention, gifts, alcohol and drugs and made her feel important. A process that we recognise as grooming - but Emma, quite simply, just wanted to be loved.

Soon the 'boyfriend' began using violence. Eventually he forced Emma to sleep with different male friends before she was 'passed on' to a new predatory adult.

Thankfully, Emma was eventually put in touch with Barnardo's. Her project worker stood by her, talked to her, listened to her. Emma began to see that there was a different future ahead of her and that if she let her past ruin the path ahead she'd be letting her abusers win.

We may have come a long way since Barnardo's opened its first service, but there is much more that needs to be done.

Unfortunately awareness of the issue of sexual exploitation amongst those who work with children remains low and all too often children slip through the net and the signs of abuse go unnoticed. Because of this, we don't really understand the real scale of the issue.

Despite there being excellent services in some parts of the country for victims, such provision remains the exception rather than the norm. And when young people do come to the attention of services, tragically the prosecution rates for perpetrators remain shockingly low with successful prosecutions often hinging on the victim having to relive their abuse in a courtroom.

We have had a commitment from Tim Loughton, the Minister for Children and Families, to lead on the issue of child sexual exploitation and the promise of an action plan this autumn.

But this is just the beginning - we need to continue the pace to ensure implementation of the Government's action plan is well underway at a national and local level by January.

Today's report is an important step in this journey and provides tangible, economic evidence of the necessity for specialist help for young people affected by sexual exploitation.

For me the case has never been clearer - we must move quickly to give these children the sanctuary they need.