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Sexually abused boys may not be identified, reveals Barnardo’s

Release Date: 11 Jul 2018

Sexually exploited boys and young men often miss out on the support they would receive if they were girls because professionals don’t always recognise them as victims, a new study shows.

New Home Office-funded research carried out by Barnardo’s has revealed that professionals may have difficulty in identifying and engaging boys and young men in terms of their history of abuse and trauma.

Behaviour that might trigger concerns that girls are at risk is sometimes put down to ‘boys being boys’, leaving many victims without the specialist support they need.

Boys involved in the research project said the failure to see them as possible victims of abuse had created barriers and stopped boys talking about abuse suffered.

The BOYS2 research was led by Barnardo’s Better Futures Cymru, which supports children and young people across Wales who have sexualised histories and Barnardo’s Base Project in Bristol, which helps children and young people who have been sexually exploited.

Barnardo’s researchers spent six months interviewing male survivors of child sexual exploitation (CSE) and heard how many had endured difficulties including chaotic home environments, domestic violence and unstable living arrangements, often moving between care and extended family.

They also reported poor relationship and sex education in schools, a lack of pastoral support, with many having low self-esteem and feeling lonely and isolated, or excluded from support networks.

A lack of healthy attachment to others and a need to find a place in their peer group had made them vulnerable to developing unsuitable social networks, which had brought them into contact with sexual and criminal exploitation.

Barnardo’s Chief Executive, Javed Khan said:

Boys who have been sexually exploited will be traumatised by their experience unless they get the support they desperately need early on. It is vital professionals know how to recognise boys as victims too, so they have the best chance of recovering from their ordeals.

Our specialist workers know that boys are often seen as the initiators of sexual activity, when the reality is that there may be serious underlying abuse that has driven that behaviour.

We now hope to reinforce this research across the UK and will continue fighting to change perceptions so young male victims aren’t prevented from getting the right support.

Barnardo’s researchers also spoke to workers from agencies ranging from social work to youth offending.

Sharron Wareham, manager of Barnardo’s Cymru’s Better Futures service, said professionals working with girls were more used to recognising that their behaviour may be a symptom of underlying abuse or trauma, but this was less likely to be applied to boys and young men.

Sharron said:

If we don’t recognise that boys can be victims and we don’t ask them the right questions there is a danger of them closing down before any relationship can be built. We have to look not at the behaviour but at the boy as a whole.

Barnardo’s is running awareness events for professionals in July and has also launched a workbook and assessment resource to help professionals work more effectively with CSE victims in future.

The charity now hopes to offer training for professionals and gain further funding to extend the research. It has also successfully campaigned for high quality age-appropriate  relationship and sex education in all schools in England.


Jack's story

Some young people Barnardo’s works with through Better Futures take months before they start trusting their project worker enough to share their experiences of abuse.

One of them is “Jack” (not his real name), 18. Like many young men he only received help after going through the criminal justice system. He said: “As a child my dad was in jail and I was abused physically, sexually, mentally and emotionally.

“Growing up I was very angry, I pushed people away and didn’t trust people. I was in care, foster placements and residential homes, bounced back and forth and told no one could work with me because I was too high risk.

When I first came to Barnardo’s I found it really difficult to talk about what I had done and what had happened to me.

“Jane my project worker helped me to talk even when I didn’t want to. Jane helped me understand how my past had influenced my behaviour, but, she never focused on the behaviour or my conviction but on me as a child. That was the most important thing.

“I had built a relationship where I could trust. I wasn’t judged or criminalised. I was looked at as a child.

“Over the last 12 months I have left care, moved into my own place and got a job. This is the start of my better future. Everyone can have a better future if they can trust one person at least.”

Notes to Editors

For further information please contact Barnardo’s 24-hour press office on 0208 4987555.

BOYS2 was a one year research project undertaken by Barnardo’s and funded by the Home Office. It was a national project managed between Barnardo’s Better Futures Cymru and Barnardo’s Base Project in Bristol.

Better Futures Cymru provides assessment and longer term therapuetic services for children and young people from across Wales with sexualised histories, including young people who have been the victims of sexual abuse (CSA); young people who display problematic or Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB); and young people who are at risk of or are abused through Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE).

Seventeen boys and young men participated in the research with an average age of 15.

Barnardo’s had been aware that boys and young men were under-represented in being identified as victims of CSE and referral for support (just nine per cent of CSE referrals were for boys even though 40% were identified as high risk). The charity also believed there was a need to raise professional awareness of boys and young men as victims of CSE.

The purpose of this research was to build upon Barnardo’s existing expertise in the field by working alongside boys and young men at risk of CSE using their voices and experiences to improve identification, assessment and intervention.

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