Social work and social care

Developing practice systems and methods for working with Child Sexual Exploitation

The practice dilemma: how do we develop practice approaches which balance a child’s need for guidance and protection with respect for their autonomy and agency? (see diagram below)

The tension of dual rights

Our research project

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner awarded a research team at the University of Sussex funding to undertake an action learning research project alongside three local authorities in England. Over the course of two years, the research team explored how the three local authorities worked to create practice systems and methods that respected children’s ‘dual rights’: to be recognised as vulnerable and in need of safety and protection alongside their right for their voices, choices and privacy to be respected. The framework for this ‘dual rights’ approach was ‘See Me, Hear Me’, which had been developed through the Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups.

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Data for the project included

Data for the project included


Finding 1

Strategic decisions need to be made about who leads service redesign, why they lead and how they lead.
This will help determine:


Finding 2

There is no one right way to structure a practice system. What matters is the underlying practice principles,
which can be summarized as:

Interdisciplinary working


The system holds the tension (some prioritise a child or young person’s right to safety/protection while others advocate for her/his right to autonomy and privacy); Successful systems surface and manage healthy dissent.

Transformed understanding


The professional traverses the ‘threshold concept’ whereby they recognise the ongoing tension between a YP’s competing rights; Accepting the ongoing tension enables professionals to tolerate the feelings of discomfort this engenders in themselves and others.

Relational child centred and respectful working

child centred and
respectful working

Professionals understand how to build trust with young people, to respect them, and work inclusively even when the child or young person does not agree with professionals about the CSE risk.

Safe uncertainty

These practice principles enabled professionals to feel more confident in their own work, and the way in which interventions were carried out

The most important factors seemed to be:

Systems which achieved manageable caseloads where practitioners can get to know young people and build their trust;

A move to using secure accommodation to protect young people only in the highest risk situations, recognising that the adverse effects on young people (through feeling imprisoned and controlled) may be counterproductive;

Multi-agency working to manage the prosecution processes carefully and sensitively;

Consultative processes which involved young meaningfully both in their own care and in wider service development;

Interdisciplinary dialogue and role clarity amongst professionals improved, enabling more constructive challenge whilst lessening defensiveness.

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“It is about trust and confidence and recognising the points at which it’s right for us to hold back on an investigation in order to allow the victim to get to a place where they feel able to engage and able to talk to us… you can’t rush it because the nature of CSE in particular is that the victim probably has a good chance that they won’t recognise themselves as a victim at the outset, so you simply cannot rush it.”

Finding 3

These practice principles, and the resulting tangible benefits in practice, are how practice systems across the three sites were able to begin managing the tensions, and facilitating good practice. All of these things happened in the context of:



  • Prioritise CSE
  • Recognises and manages tensions
  • Manageable workloads


  • Respectful uncertainty
  • Emotionally informed
  • Shares and holds risk
Ethical practice

Ethical practice

  • Child-centred
  • Participatory
  • Rights-based
Relationship-based practice

Relationship-based practice

  • Trusting relationships with young people
  • Trust within and across agencies
Finding 3

Next steps for each site


Current conceptualisations for recognising CSE risk are still emergent

This makes tracking referrals and outcomes challenging across agencies and regions as terminology and categorisations differ. Consequently, comparisons of effectiveness in approaches is difficult to achieve. Cross-national work will be necessary to develop more consually agreed systems.


More needs to be done

To help professionals balance the tension between protecting young people and respecting their voices, choices and privacy.
Training and support can start with enabling professionals to recognise that tension and to learn from cases where the tension has


We need to learn more

About how young people experience CSE assessment and intervention, as their views on service systems and methods are still


Additional resources

Whilst there is much to be celebrated in the development of new responses to CSE, these require additional resources. How will
this be balanced with services for other aspects of child protection in a very resource-constrained environment? This needs to be
carefully evaluated as the austerity cuts continue to bite, and professionals continue to identify other forms of exploitation (e.g. criminal exploitation) that young people experience.

For further information:
Dr. Kristine Hickle, Professor Michelle Lefevre, Mr. Barry Luckock, Professor Gillian Ruch
Department of Social Work, University of Sussex Falmer, Brighton, BN1 9QQ
Email: Tel: +44(0)1273 876741