Learning to protect vulnerable adults | first comment

“One woman said she would have ‘ended up dead’ had the council not gone to court to protect her”

Councillor Karen Kilgour (Lab) is Cabinet Member for Health and Social Care at Newcastle City Council

Sexual exploitation is a crime that destroys lives.

The physical, emotional and psychological damage inflicted on victims is akin to post-traumatic stress and can last a lifetime. How we deal with it and, more importantly, how we prevent it, is arguably one of the biggest challenges our society faces today.

Like many towns and cities, Newcastle has had problems sexual exploitation, but what made us different was that most of the victims were vulnerable adults rather than children. Abuse that starts in childhood does not stop at 18 and can carry on for many years into adulthood, making the problem much more complex to tackle.

When we learned of its scale, we were truly shocked. How we rose to tackle it has been recognised as a model of best practice by Ofsted, and we want other local authorities to learn from our experience and join us in the fight against sexual exploitation.

We have learned a great deal over the last four years, but three things stand out.

Firstly, you must act quickly to protect victims and disrupt perpetrators once the problem becomes apparent. In January 2014, when a woman confided in her social worker that she had suffered years of abuse, we listened and believed her. This gave confidence to more victims to come forward and tell their stories.

Amid a blaze of publicity, we launched Operation Sanctuary, a multi-agency investigation into sexual exploitation. Within weeks, Northumbria Police had arrested 30 men. Far from sweeping the problem under the carpet, we actively went out looking for it.

Secondly, once the problem had been identified we threw resources at it. Despite the impact of austerity, we took the decision to make significant resources available to provide victims with the specialist support they needed.

We applied for, and won, Home Office funding to set up a Sexual Exploitation Hub where children’s and adults’ social workers, police officers and volunteers work alongside each other to give comprehensive support to young girls and vulnerable women, no matter how long it takes.

Sexual exploitation is complex. Victims may not even be aware that they are victims and continue their abusive relationship. In these cases, we used the law innovatively, going to the Court of Protection to apply for deprivation of liberty safeguards ensuring victims were safeguarded.

In her own words, one woman said she would have “ended up dead” had the council not gone to court to protect her.

Thirdly, we need a better understanding of sexual exploitation if we are to prevent it. We commissioned the first ever Safeguarding Adults and Safeguarding Children’s Joint Serious Case Review to look at the experiences of women and girls together. We must give a voice to the victims, for it is only by listening to them can we improve our understanding of what they have suffered.

Their voices ring out loud and clear through the pages of David Spicer’s independent report. Unpalatable as it may seem, we must also engage with the perpetrators to find out what motivates and drives them to commit such evil.

Sexual exploitation is a national issue. It’s not just happening in our big cities but also in towns and villages up and down the country. We are planning a national conference in the autumn to discuss sexual exploitation and what can be done about it. This is the least we can do to pay tribute to the bravery of the women and girls who suffer in silence. Let’s work together to put an end to that suffering.

  • For more information about Newcastle City Council’s autumn conference on safeguarding vulnerable adults, please email andrea.semple@newcastle.gov.uk. David Spicer’s independent joint serious case review is available here.