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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Child sexual exploitation by organised networks investigation report


F.3: Screening and risk assessments

6. There are a wide variety of methods used in England to identify children who have already been harmed or who are at risk of harm, to raise initial concerns about sexual exploitation and to conduct thorough assessments of the risks of sexual exploitation the child faces.[1] Initial identification is often referred to as ‘screening’ and more detailed assessment as ‘risk assessments’.

7. Traditionally, these assessments have prompted the identification of vulnerabilities (such as prior abuse, neglect and family dysfunction) and factors that may indicate a risk of child sexual exploitation.[2] Factors considered to evidence a significant, high or very high risk of exploitation include going missing overnight or longer; entering or leaving cars driven by unknown adults; and physical or emotional abuse by a controlling adult. Moderate or medium risk factors include staying out late; returning to home or care under the influence of alcohol or drugs; acquisition of money or items without explanation; and excessive receipt of texts or phone calls or use of the internet. Although these factors are often referred to as indicating risk, they can also be evidence that a child has already been sexually exploited and harmed. Practitioners should not lose sight of this.

8. Checklists may be “a bit of a comfort blanket and give a false positive or a false negative”.[3] They are particularly problematic if they do not allow or encourage the inclusion of narrative information to explain indicators, risk and protective factors.[4] They should not be used in isolation or as a substitute for holistic professional judgement and professional curiosity.[5]

9. Rather than describing harm or classifying the level of risk, some assessments include a numeric score.[6] Those that score risk solely on a numerical basis should not be used.

10. For these reasons, as has been made clear in the Department for Education guidance since February 2017, professionals must conduct more rounded assessments of a child’s vulnerability, risk and protective factors. Assessments should emphasise the importance of understanding all the child’s experiences and relationships, and the world they live in.[7]

11. Despite the 2017 guidance, there was continued use of a checklist approach in some areas, with limited space for professional judgement. For example, Durham County Council’s revised child exploitation risk assessment only made minor amendments to the original document, which was outdated. There is a basic checklist and risk rating system. There is also a continuing overlap between the indicators for low, moderate and significant risk in the revised risk assessment.[8]

12. Risk assessments often described children as being at high or medium risk of sexual exploitation.[9] Many of these children are in fact already experiencing abuse and require immediate intervention. High, medium or low risk is therefore an inappropriate way to describe their circumstances and to flag up the need for immediate intervention.

13. A merging of risk and harm was apparent in the evidence about the case study children. Warning signs of harm, such as being missing overnight, sexual health problems and being supplied with alcohol and drugs in parks or at parties, were described in terms of ‘medium’ or ‘high’ risk rather than being assessed as the child being sexually exploited. For example, if a child has a sexually transmitted disease, this is clear evidence that a child has already experienced harm; it is not merely an indicator of risk.[10]

14. The conflation of risk and harm was also apparent from the revised County Durham risk assessment which merged indicators of risk (such as “very limited or no recognition of abusive or exploitative behaviour”) with actual harm (such as “young person is being sexually abused by an adult or there is an inappropriate relationship age gap”).[11]

15. There was a more progressive approach to risk assessment in Warwickshire, which uses the National Working Group (NWG) Child Sexual Exploitation Assessment Tool. This was developed in consultation with a large number of councils and piloted before it was introduced in 2017. It moved away from a tick-box approach to clarify the difference between risk and harm, avoid screening out those deemed ‘low risk’ and avoid using risk indicators which were not supported by evidence.[12] The NWG has identified further improvements that should be made to the assessment, namely to strengthen the voice of the child and family members, to include disruption and to incorporate a wider recognition of diverse groups.[13] The use of this assessment in Warwickshire was evaluated in 2019 and was shown to have improved professional judgement, informed by chronologies of the child’s life. It also promoted greater involvement of children and parents/carers in assessment and planning.[14] Warwickshire County Council considered that this assessment best achieves a “holistic assessment of vulnerability”, rather than screening children ‘in’ or ‘out’.[15]

16. Similarly, Tower Hamlets has developed a rounded assessment form that moved away from a tick-box approach.[16]

17. The latest approach in Wales is also positive. Prior to 2019, all agencies in Wales used the Sexual Exploitation Risk Assessment Framework (SERAF). Research commissioned by the Welsh Government in 2017 showed that reliance on the SERAF and other risk assessment documents had led to a short-term and process-driven approach to risk management, which did not secure longer-term safeguarding and well-being outcomes for children.[17] Further research in 2019 found problems with the risk-based approach to tackling child sexual exploitation, which focussed on managing young people’s ‘risky’ behaviours.[18]

18. As a consequence, and following consultation, the Welsh Government decided to move away from risk assessment forms to encourage a more holistic approach. From November 2019, the revised All Wales Practice Guide: Safeguarding children from child sexual exploitation (CSE) included the prompt for practitioners, using four headings of physical signs, emotional signs, material signs and behavioural signs.[19] Reference to the SERAF was removed from Welsh safeguarding procedures.[20] Despite this, Ms Julie Thomas, Head of Children’s Services at the City and County of Swansea Council (Swansea Council), told us in September 2020 that all agencies in its area continued to use the SERAF, which they understood was a “national requirement”.[21] This misinterpretation of national guidance is troubling, given her seniority. Swansea Council should ensure that practitioner prompts required under the All Wales Practice Guide are included in all risk assessments as a matter of urgency. New statutory guidance issued by the Welsh Government in March 2021 did not prescribe any specific risk assessment.[22]

19. In Bristol, Operation Topaz focusses on “identifying the source of the risk to the child and then removing or disrupting that source”, noting that risk assessments often focus “almost entirely on the child, and not the links to those who pose a CSE [child sexual exploitation] risk to the child”.[23]

20. An evaluation of Operation Topaz in October 2017 found that its Topaz Risk Assessment Profile (TRAP) had “more appropriately risk assessed victims and subjects and made the connections between information that would not have met the threshold for intelligence recording, and could previously have been missed”.[24] However, there is an issue in Bristol in that multiple assessment tools are used.

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