Education & Family

Giving sexually exploited children a home

A child on a swing reflected in puddle
Image caption Foster carers get extra training for looking after children who have been abused or exploited

The jailing of nine men in Rochdale last month for the sexual exploitation of young girls has raised wider questions about how we look after vulnerable teenagers.

A new pilot scheme aims to protect them by placing them with specially-trained foster carers. Luke Walton is the first person to interview one of the families taking part in the scheme.

Clare*, a retired teacher and Bob*, a former businessman, are in their 50s.

They live in the north-east of England and their children have grown up.

After approaching the children's charity Barnardo's about the possibility of fostering, they were asked if they would consider caring for a young person who had been sexually exploited.

They eventually took on 17-year-old Adam. Clare vividly remembers her first impressions.

"He was very thin, very badly dressed, very under-confident. He came in terrified, shivering in a very thin T-shirt. It was quite a contrast to our own children at that age," she said.

"But I must admit a year on, he has changed a lot; he goes to college regularly."

From his early teens, Adam had been groomed and sexually exploited by an older man.

He had come from a violent home, been bullied at school - and the older man had spotted his vulnerability and preyed on him.

"If one of those sexual predators can use that weakness, they will use and abuse that," said Clare.

Now in the security of his foster home, Adam is putting that behind him.

In the early days, Clare says his behaviour - and language - could be difficult.

"He could be very crude and it was difficult," she said.

"But it wasn't him talking. It was a result of the person who had put him through this, something no-one should have to go through."

Clare and Bob are part of a pilot project to recruit specialist carers to look after children who have been sexually exploited. The foster families are carefully prepared for the task.

Danger signs

Wendy Shepherd, who manages a Barnardo's project fighting sexual exploitation, said: "Where I see the importance of a specialist foster placement is that you can train those foster carers to understand the issues for that young person.

"You can have some vigilance on whether they want to talk or not about that exploitation - because we can't force that issue."

She says it is important the foster carer remains aware of any danger signs.

"For example, are there phone calls to the house from unknown males?" she said.

"Does anyone turn up in a car in the area that the foster carer needs to be reporting to the police?"

Brenda Farrell from Barnardo's helps to run the specialist fostering scheme.

She says the foster carers become part of a team protecting the young person.

"So we will have a support worker working with the young person, we will have a social worker working with the foster carer. And we will be providing support to that placement on a 24-hour basis," she said.

The two-year project is finding 16 foster placements around England for vulnerable teenagers, funded by nearly £1.5m from the government.

Wendy Shepherd believes the approach is a better option for some teenagers than alternatives within the care system, such as living in a children's home.

"If young people are placed in a secure unit, they will feel like they have been placed there because they are bad," she says.

"If they are placed in a children's home, they can be preyed on or they can encourage other young people to take part in exploitative behaviour."

Looking forward

Adam's foster carer Clare believes that without the protection of her home, he might have ended up homeless or, even worse, back with the man who exploited him.

Instead, roughly a year into his placement, she says he is much happier and now attends college regularly.

"Adam has made great strides. He has a better physical presence and self-esteem," she said.

"He respects boundaries and is making some very good choices and looking forward to his future.

"The fact that he goes on every day now with such courage and such spirit is more reward than I could ever have imagined."

*The family's names have been changed.

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