Savannah* was supported by Barnardo’s to access the help she needed after she had been exploited at age 15 by a man who initially pretended to be a boy her own age.
Two years ago, Savannah was approached over a social media platform by someone who appeared to be a boy her own age. After months of conversation, she grew close with this person who she thought was a boy named Ben*. “At first, everything seemed pretty normal”, said Savannah. Eventually, she was coerced into sharing explicit photos of herself.
She met Ben in person and had no reason to be suspicious because she met up with the same boy whose photos she recognised from social media. But weeks later when they met again, Ben broke down in tears and told her that it was actually an older man Savannah had been speaking and sending photos to. Ben was himself being criminally exploited by being forced to sell drugs for the man, who controlled his social media accounts and was using them to talk to Savannah.
“When you’re fifteen, getting that attention from someone older seems amazing. By this point, we had been speaking for months and everything he was saying was just what I wanted to hear.” Through initially using Ben as a means to talk to Savannah, the adult exploiter was able to groom her and captivate the teenager with promises of a relationship and a life of financial security. “Everyone can remember their first ‘crush’ or first love, and for me this felt no different at the time. He knew just what to say to make me believe he truly cared for me and wanted to be together.”
Savannah had a fractured relationship with her own father, and she explained how her groomer exploited her unmet needs. “I had been let down my whole life – broken promise after broken promise from my dad.”
Eventually, the man’s grooming culminated in him sexually abusing Savannah in his home and then threatening her against speaking to anyone about what happened. “Straight after that, he changed completely....he said he just wanted to be friends – when that upset me, he told me to leave and threatened me never to tell anyone. Some of the threats he made were horrific.” The incident only came to light when the man was arrested and charged for a separate crime, and police searches discovered explicit images of Savannah on his phone.
Savannah blamed herself for what happened and her feelings of guilt and shame were made much worse after a social services referral raised concerns that Savannah’s mum was aware of her exploitation. Despite their protests to the contrary, Savannah and her sibling were taken out of her mum’s care. “When social workers came round, I sobbed like a baby and begged them not to take me from my mum. As if what I had already been through wasn’t bad enough – I was ripped from my mum, the only stability I’d ever had. I was made to feel like my actions had broken my family apart and ruined everyone’s lives – rather than feeling like I was a victim of exploitation,” she said.
Plans were put in place to keep Savannah safe, but these worsened her feelings that she was being punished. Her phone was taken from her, and she was placed on a 9pm nightly curfew at a close relative’s house, although her exploiter was already in prison by this time. She felt like she was under house arrest, cut off from friends, family, and the outside world.
“There were a lot of times where you’re sat in a dark room and it’s a split decision whether you stay to fight on another day or you don’t. Some of those darkest times, I could have easily [killed myself], definitely. It’s sad to think about the amount of people who don’t have that support around them or don’t have that fight to carry on, because this will be happening all the time.”
How we supported Savannah
Savannah was referred to us at Barnardo’s, and she was assigned a caseworker called Amy*. When the pair first met, Savannah was tired of different professionals coming and going from her life.
“It was different with Amy; she wasn’t patronising, and she told me she would be there for me as long as I needed. She spoke to me on my level, and we had a good relationship from the start.” Amy fought tirelessly to ensure that Savannah was regarded as a victim by professionals rather than being complicit in her own abuse.
Amy made sure Savannah was able to attend the social care meetings regarding her case, something which young people are often not given the opportunity to do despite the meetings concerning the intimate details of their lives. Through this work, and advocating for Savannah at these meetings, Amy was able to get Savannah her phone back, more freedom to go out, and increased contact with her mum – all of which significantly improved her mental health.
Starting a new chapter
Now 18-years-old, Savannah says she’s thriving and is re-sitting her GCSE exams. Today, she dreams of working with young people, and she’s been offered a role with a Barnardo’s service. Reflecting on her journey, Savannah said, “I’m not joking when I say that, were it not for Barnardo’s, I would still be in that deep, dark hole. I would probably be dead is the reality of it. It’s just so sad to think of all the other children who are made to feel the same way and don’t have anyone there fighting their corner.”
*All names have been changed to protect the identity of the young people involved.