From our first year (2019-20) of delivering the Tackling Child Exploitation (TCE) Support Programme we identified five core priorities we wanted to consider in detail with colleagues from across the sector. One of these is equalities, diversity and inclusion (EDI). Not because no one has heard of it but because, despite protected characteristics having being enshrined in law for decades, there remains much room for improvement in how issues of EDI are attended to within the national and local response to child exploitation.
Interestingly, the TCE Support Programme has yet to be asked by a single local partnership to work with them to understand how equality, diversity and inclusion are influencing the outcomes for the (potentially) exploited children and young people in their local system. We do not think this is an indication that we have no more work to do in this area. The painful experiences of so many have been at the forefront of (inter)national movements such as ‘Me Too’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’ this year and the links between identity, vulnerability, visibility and exploitation have been writ large through the lives, and sadly deaths, of young people like Jaden Moodie. The evidence suggests strongly that for far too many young people affected by exploitation, we are not effectively meeting our statutory and moral obligations to understand and engage with their multi-faceted needs relating to their identity.
Jaden’s story was not an isolated example. The Youth Violence Commission’s Final Report and the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel’s recent report on child criminal exploitation it was hard to escape both underline the intersecting nature of the risks and vulnerabilities that young people face – including poverty. Both also highlight that the complexity of young people lives requires exploitation partnerships that are broad and diverse. Education, housing, youth and community services, at a minimum, need to work hand in glove with their statutory partners to create a system that sees all of who a young person is.
In curating resources for the TCE microsite we were again struck by how few resources on equalities, diversity and inclusion focused at a strategic level. There are many resources available to support frontline practitioners to understand disproportionality; to reflect on power dynamics and understand the impact of oppression, marginalisation and alienation on individuals. But are the same learning opportunities available to local strategic leaders? Leaders responsible for shaping the spaces, places, institutions and support available to young people as they play, grow, learn, experiment and take risks. Engaging with issues of EDI – and recognising the intersectionality of people’s identities – is therefore a crucial part of developing and embedding an effective strategic response to child exploitation.
In writing this, I am aware that I am a white able-bodied woman, and this influences the lens through which I understand the world. And whilst many aspects of identity are not visible, the TCE is not a diverse team in terms of ethnicity in particular. This does not mean that we should keep quiet about the issues – in fact, arguably, it demands that we speak up. It means that we are asking hard questions of ourselves about the dynamics of our own team and actively looking for the changes that will disrupt our own status quo. Part (but not all) of this is looking for opportunities at every point to invite and hold space for alternate perspectives, taking care not to dominate. We must enable and amplify those with lived experience and expertise, taking care not to co-opt their stories.
This is a complex area. We know this. EDI issues can make people nervous. But fear of fault lines, pitfalls and ‘saying the wrong thing’ can mean too many of us with the power to alter the dynamic are not acknowledging the structural discrimination and disadvantage that many young people face. So we are not working to keep them safe, on their terms in their world.
The context in which institutions and systems were built matter; too often we are asking children and young people, at their most vulnerable, to trust institutions that they see as replicating the power structures that have hurt them. Asking people and institutions to own white privilege is not to label people as racist, but it still feels deeply uncomfortable for many. It can be hard for those brought up in a binary world to understand – or empathise with – fluidity and flexibility, for example in terms of gender. The tendency to infantilise young people with disabilities – or, conversely, to overlook vulnerabilities of those with learning needs – remain a barrier to effective safeguarding It is a landscape that leaves its – often privileged – leaders unsure of what is expected of them and places too much responsibility on its young people to explain who they are and why that is so very important.
Whether we see ourselves as architects, guardians or reformers of the system we cannot exempt ourselves from – ethically, reflectively and compassionately – questioning what actions are needed across a partnership to make spaces and places safe for young people. We cannot exempt ourselves from building a system of protection that is alive to the vulnerabilities a young person might face based on how they look, what they believe, how they identify or who they are attracted to. Every conversation we have needs to include questions about how we are responding to diversity, fostering inclusion and rewarding diversity.
As a national programme TCE has a platform to create and hold space for voices that are not our own; voices able to offer challenge, share their perspectives and to shape and lead. Earlier this year we asked Jahnine Davis and Nick Marsh, co-founders of Listen Up, to author a think-piece The hyper-visible and invisible children for us. It is a piece that encourages us to go beyond value statements to forensically consider what actions we are taking to make equality a lived reality for all children and young people.
It is a piece that asks leaders to challenge themselves on whether the structural system around young people is capable of honestly reflecting their layered, nuanced and intersecting identities. Senior leaders rely on a complex system of referral pathways, assessment forms, thresholds, information-sharing agreements, risk profiles and databases to generate a profile against which to deploy resource. But do these processes and structures tell us what we need to know to protect children and young people? What are we missing, either because we don’t see it; or we can’t record it; or both? And how robustly are we interrogating this profile? Are we using information to confirm or challenge our biases? Is the strategic design of our services challenging or perpetuating a status quo? Do our approaches to data lead us into depicting young people as in binary terms: either safe or unsafe; high or low risk; victim or perpetrator; female or black; Sikh or gay? Might we be falling into the trap of designing homogenous system responses based on simplistic – even discriminatory understanding: gang programmes for black boys; sexual abuse services for girls; outreach work only in inner-cities?
If local partnerships can see the fullness of young people’s identities, the ‘reachable moments’ may be easier to identify and act upon. There is a vital role for senior leaders to actively and visibly nurture diversity within their organisations. Young people who need protection need leaders capable of joining the dots. We have to lead with care: see all of who young people are and design services that recognise and value this; we have to build bridges between young people and the system meant to engage and protect them and we have to support our leaders to work with complexity, uncertainty and curiosity.
To support this, the TCE Support Programme can hold high expectations for, and offer high support and high challenge to, local partnerships in relation to equality diversity and inclusion.
To frame your thinking, we commend Jahnine and Nick’s think-piece to you as a thoughtful opener. It asks strategic partnerships to reflect on several key points that we want to draw out and build upon.
Join the conversation
We are inviting leaders, thinkers, researchers, campaigners and those with lived experience to join us by following @ResearchIP on Twitter in December to discuss about ‘hyper visible and invisible’ children. On 9 December at 18.00 we will be exploring the importance of understanding identity to preventing exploitation, and what our collective roles and responsibilities are in relation to this. On 16 December at 18.00 we will continue the conversation, thinking in more detail about the questions Jahnine and Nick have posed and asking you to share insights from your own work and experiences that we can build upon.
And as you would expect, this isn’t a one-off conversation. We have pulled together an initial collection of resources and publications we think are important and thought provoking, which we will be sharing over the coming weeks and through the Twitter conversations. We want to hear from and work with all those who are personally and professionally invested to digest the ideas from these first conversations and resources; identifying common themes and emerging priorities to help direct where the TCE Support Programme can most usefully contribute.
Equalities, diversity and inclusion will remain a priority for the programme for the duration of our funding (until March 2022). We want to use this time to constructively disrupt those aspects or behaviours of the system that do not do justice to the full, glorious and intersectional identities of all our young people.