The crucial role of the NHS in safeguarding against child sexual exploitation

The profile of child sexual exploitation has recently been raised through a series of tragic and shocking cases.

It is a form of child abuse that has only been fully recognised in recent years. The issue has gone from being largely hidden and rarely acknowledged to the subject of significant media and political attention and concern in recent months.

It is clear that health services and staff have a significant contribution to make in identifying children and young people at risk of sexual exploitation and supporting the treatment and recovery of those harmed.

This difficult and emotive subject is rightly a national priority for health professionals and agencies.

The publication of the Department of Health Working Group Report (2014); Jay Report (2014) and Medical Colleges Report (2014), all highlight the role of health services and have been welcomed. Their recommendations complement a range of positive work and actions currently in place and they are clear regarding the specific responsibilities for health services and staff.

This work will be taken forward by NHS England’s National Safeguarding Group working in partnership with other agencies to share national best practice across health services and agencies.

I work in a safeguarding role and believe that as we attend the latest Chief Nursing Officers’ Conference, it is timely to highlight the role of the health worker in helping to identify child exploitation and supporting those it harms.

Health professionals are in a key position to recognise and assist children and young people and have several roles including identifying the warning signs of risk or indicators of exploitation, engaging with children and young people so they are encouraged to share information; taking advice from internal safeguarding advisors and sharing information with agencies as appropriate.

This conference, entitled Experience Matters, will focus on the importance of patients’ experiences, and champions the great merit in listening to and understanding people’s personal circumstances either as carers, as people with a learning difficulty looking to be more independent or, indeed, in listening to our own staff and their needs for training and progression.

It is vital that we continue to listen to the voice of children and young people so as to learn from their experiences and improve the services we provide.  Their voice is crucial in identifying those at risk of sexual exploitation and stopping this form of abuse.

We should remember that Children and young people affected by CSE can present with a range of physical and or emotional problems to Sexual Health Services; Unplanned/Urgent Care Services; Mental Health Services and Drug and Alcohol Services. It is therefore essential that all health care professionals are aware of the range of presentations, which may include but not be limited to: poor self-care, sexually transmitted infections, contraception, pregnancy, termination, drug and alcohol problems and self-harming behaviours, and that they know how to respond appropriately.

How healthcare staff and agencies work together to promote effective early intervention is also of critical importance in supporting children and young people who are sexually exploited.

It is vital that we share and receive information as part of local multi-agency arrangements, with many areas having now established monthly Multi-Agency Sexual Exploitation meetings (MASE).  This is where new cases and activity are reviewed against previously reported cases of Child Sexual Exploitation.

Safeguarding considerations override the usual requirements for confidentiality and staff must be confident to act accordingly, following the advice of the named doctor and nurse for safeguarding and keeping the child informed as appropriate.

The NHS’ role in identifying young people at risk and helping those who have already been exploited is crucial and health professionals across the country in a variety of settings can help to do influence this.

Lisa Cooper is Chair of the NHS England Child Sexual Exploitation sub-group and Assistant Director of Nursing, Quality & Safety for Cheshire, Warrington and Wirral Area Team.