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Girls in criminal justice system 'not being protected'

A joint report found many staff ill-prepared to deal with the problem of actual or potential sexual exploitation.

Many girls in the criminal justice system are at risk of sexual exploitation, independent inspectors have found.

A joint report from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) and other agencies said that while they found some effective preventative work to help girls understand the risk of sexual exploitation, there were still areas of serious concern.

The inspectors found that child sexual exploitation was a risk to girls in all six Youth Offending Teams (YOT) they visited and that only 50 per cent of assessments carried out considered risk of sexual exploitation.

"More rigour needs to be brought to bear on evaluating what works in turning girls away from crime and reducing their vulnerability," said Chief Inspector of Probation, Paul McDowell.

"What we were extremely concerned about was that many of the girls we came across during this inspection were themselves vulnerable to sexual exploitation and many had experienced situations and circumstances in their lives which they were struggling to understand and come to terms with.

"These individuals are children and are entitled to the rights and protection a child should receive. In too many cases, this protection was absent with staff in agencies often ill-prepared to deal with, or unaware of the problem of actual or potential sexual exploitation.”

It cites an example in Sunderland where the links between the Youth Offending Services and partner agencies for protecting girls from sexual exploitation were underdeveloped, leaving case managers with "no robust method" of reducing the risk to the girls.

Girls were being moved to other parts of the country to protect them from abuse rather than the active engagement with other agencies to pursue the perpetrators.

It also raised a concern that in two inspected areas, effective action was not been taken to protect at risk girls even though case managers had suspicions of exploitation.

The report acknowledged that most YOT workers and staff recognised that to work with girls effectively, methods used to work with boys were inappropriate and that girls, more than so than boys needed to develop secure and trusting relationships with staff.

However, where gender-sensitive approaches had been developed, this was due to individuals being committed to improving the lives and outcomes for girls and not through a nationally or locally led approach.

Inspectors were also concerned that it was difficult to know the exact nature of the vulnerability of the girls as there was a discrepancy between what was recorded on the vulnerability screening tool and what case managers knew and thought about the case. This meant that plans to manage vulnerability sometimes lacked specific actions to keep the girls safe.

It also found "a major omission" in that assessments analysing why a girl had offended and whether she was likely to offend again did not always take into account issues connected to gender, such as health problems and the impact of friends, family, or associates.

Girls make up just five per cent of the caseload in youth offending services and the population of children in custody, meaning they sometimes get overlooked in a juvenile system "primarily designed to deal with offending by boys".

The report set out to identify if there were accurate assessments of any gender-specific needs and to examine where working with girls made a positive difference in preventing them from offending.