IN the wake of Operation Bullfinch it was decided that a new team was needed to focus specifically on Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE). So in November 2012, Oxfordshire County Council, Thames Valley Police and Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust jointly set up the Kingfisher Unit.

Based at Cowley Police Station, the team’s 20 members work with victims of abuse and grooming to try to bring those responsible to justice.

Our reporter Joe Nimmo visited the unit..

Spotting the clues.

THE social care team manager at the Kingfisher Unit, Sue Evans, said there are a variety of signs that a child could be a victim of CSE.

She said: “From the assessments the individual social workers do, there are clues.

“But there is also that gut feeling, that hunch, that something is not right for this child.

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“And when you look at the risk indicators for CSE, such as not being in education, being missing from home, being given unexplained gifts, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, there is a whole list of things that actually give us a clue that there is something seriously going on.

“So it’s about not giving up on them, because what we find is the children we work with, they are not the ordinary children who get up and go to school every day and function well academically.

“These are the really vulnerable children who are missing school, that nobody seems to know where they are or what they are doing.

“They are the children that are excluded, the children that you could pick out on the street as looking vulnerable.”

Raising concerns.

THE Oxfordshire Safeguarding Children’s Board has produced a ‘screening tool’ which helps adults identify the signs of CSE.

The board has rolled out training for every professional across the county, totalling more than 7,500 staff, teaching them to spot the warning signs.

The Kingfisher Unit receives a few screening tools a week sent back in, usually by email.

Mrs Evans said: “The screening tools come from a variety of places such as education, health, or any practitioner who works with children.

“It’s a questionnaire which identifies children who could be at risk.

“The other main way that we get girls into the team is actually by talking to the children themselves.

“And especially when we’ve got serious concerns about child sexual exploitation, quite often children don’t talk about themselves but they will talk about their friends, they will talk about other children who they are really worried about.

“They’ll say ‘you need to be talking to this child’. Then we’ll go out and speak to them.”

Top police officer on the team Detective Inspector Laura MacInnes said: “We can also get concerns coming in from police officers, neighbourhood officers, sometimes when a child has been reported missing.”

First contact.

ONCE a concern has been raised, a social worker makes the first contact with the child.

The Kingfisher Unit has four qualified social workers who work on the team, plus two senior practitioners and two managers, who are also trained social workers.

There are also six family support workers and one health nurse.

Mrs Evans said: “When we first talk to a child we are very upfront about what we do, that we work with the police and with health and that we share information.

“We start from that basis of honesty, being open about what we do. Because what we know with all these children is that they have real issues of trust with adults and with professionals.”

Det Insp MacInnes said: “If we really think it could end up in a case then we send one of our case investigators from the police side, to build that trust and rapport and show that joint working early on, so that child gets used to that case investigator.

She added: “(This is) so that if they get to the point of disclosure they will feel comfortable disclosing to a police officer.”

View from the social worker.

ONE member of the team, who wished to remain anonymous, said she had a child get in touch on Christmas Day.

She said: “The secret of building the trust with these young people is being there continuously, and sometimes that means being there when they don’t want you to be there.

“And if you say you’re going to be there every week at the same time you genuinely have to be there.

“You almost fill in a void of what maybe the perpetrator has given them in their life, it might be from absent parenting or something.

“So that means when we finish work at 5pm we can’t turn our phones off because often these girls want to talk to you late at night when they are on their own and they’re in their room and they’re thinking.

“That’s when they need you.

Or periods such as school holidays or Christmas Day for example.

“It is a real continuous support. You can’t just think at five o’clock I’m not working anymore because that’s when they need you the most.

“A few of us had to work together on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Day and New Year’s Eve.”

Breaking down barriers.

DESCRIBING the speed of their progress with the children, Mrs Evans said in most cases it takes more than a year to reach the point where they are willing to talk about what has happened to them.

She said: “It is case-by-case with individual children.

“What we know about these children is it takes a long time to break down these barriers to get them to trust the social workers.

“They are the children who have very chaotic home lives, so part of what the social workers do to build up that trust is to start with some of their basic needs.

“And so for instance if you say you are going to see them at a certain time you have to be there at a certain time.

“We’ve had one or two children who have disclosed almost immediately, but actually with the majority of children this is a long-term piece of work.

What we are asking children to do is to tell us about them having sex, and to describe intimate details of that.

“And actually as an adult that would be excruciatingly embarrassing, so for a child to do it is even more difficult.”

Det Insp MacInnes said: “They don’t realise they are victims either, so there has to be that kind of recognition and understanding.”

Filling a void.

MRS Evans explained that sometimes the team’s work includes simply providing for the basic needs of the children they speak to.

She said that can be anything from finding them winter clothing or shelter, to school uniforms, a hot meal or a cup of coffee.

She added: “The perpetrators know what they are doing, they have groomed these children, they have filled that void for them.

“They have provided them with clothing, with gifts, and maybe showered them with affection to start with, and showed them an adult way of life that children of that age shouldn’t have seen.

“And it makes them feel very special and very important.

“So what we are asking the social workers to do is to try to fill that void, and some of that is almost replicating the grooming in a way.

“And it’s not grooming, but we have to fill that void for those children, so we have to offer almost what the perpetrators do, but obviously without the sexual exploitation.

“But we have to offer them something better, so that they can see what a normal relationship is, disconnected from the sex element of it.

“You almost have to groom them out of it and back to reality.

“It’s about showing that people can show you kindness and you can trust them without them exploiting them.”