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‘The only people that’s ever stopped, listened and never judged me is these guys’: Insights from a mum whose child experienced exploitation.


Molly Manister is a research assistant in the Contextual Safeguarding research team at Durham University. In March 2024, she met with a worker from Action For Children who runs a parents’ group for those whose children are experiencing extra-familial harm, and a mum who attends the group. Together they talked about the experiences of parents whose children are at risk, some of the challenges in the current system in relation to parent support, and what services might do in the future to help those whose children are facing violence and abuse outside their family homes. This blog provides some of the key talking points from the conversation.

In the Contextual Safeguarding team, we strive to understand what kinds of support and services help keep young people safe from harm they experience beyond their families. Often, unsurprisingly, this means thinking about what young people need and want and what kind of support is effective at not only helping them stay safe, but to thrive. What’s also important to think about, and can feel like a secondary concern when young people are at risk, is the impact that extra-familial harm has on the parents and carers of young people and children.

In February 2024, I sat down with, Ellie*, whose son had experienced a range of harms, including criminal exploitation and mental health challenges, and a professional, Hannah*, from Action For Children. Action For Children had been helping Ellie via their weekly group where parents come together to support one another through the challenges and hardships that come with having children experiencing extra-familial harm. We chatted for over an hour, and Ellie very candidly and openly shared with me not only her experiences, but what she thinks makes solid, constructive, and caring support for parents and carers. Here are some of the things I learned from Ellie and Hannah.

Judgement free, non-blaming, safe spaces are key

Unfortunately, we know that blaming parents for the harm their child faces outside the home is too common an occurrence, which can leave parents feeling isolated, alone, and helpless. Throughout our conversation, Ellie continually reiterated to me how having a judgement free space was absolutely crucial to her wellbeing, despite her reservations about joining at first:

Molly: Once you got in touch with Action for Children, what kind of thing was it that they were doing to sort of support you and your son?

Ellie: … There was a parent group and I was like, “Parent group, yeah, f**k off you can’t tell me how to be a parent…”, I’m like, “my son’s turning eighteen in a few months and now you’re going to give me parenting tips.” Like, “Yeah, seriously! But I’ll go to a meeting and that’ll be me, I’ll just walk away and I’ll never go…”

Hannah: She’s never left us since [laughs].

Ellie: So, now my son is an ambassador for Action for Children and I just go to the mums’ group. Like I didn’t have a life, so I was pushing all my friends away, I was arguing with my partner at the time, like it was horrendous. I just wanted to crawl into my bed and stay there and they actually gave me a life, they gave me a reason to get up. They never judged what I was saying, you know. If I wanted to go and just offload I could, if I wanted to go and just talk about wild water swimming, you just could. Do you know what I mean?

Some services blame and judge parents

It might seem obvious that not judging parents whose children are at risk is important. But Ellie told us that in reality, a lot of the services she reached out to for help prior to joining the group made her feel like she was doing something wrong when her son was in danger:

Molly: it sounds like you’re kind of, a sort of community unit all together and you’re sort of all supporting each other and propping each other up in different ways…

Hannah: …what I’ve generally kind of felt from this as well is it was probably the first time that you didn’t feel like somebody was pointing the finger at you and saying you were to blame.

Ellie: So- so, if I was to go back to the start, like it’s a long, drawn-out process but I went through every service possible… I went in [to social care] and asked if safeguarding didn’t affect my child and she says, “This is a safeguarding issue, I now have to act on it.” I says, “I know you do.” I’m still waiting, my son’s not at school anymore. I’m still waiting for them to act on that. Police. Just horrendous. So, in the beginning I used to phone them up, my son would sneak out, I’d phone them up and say, “Can you fetch him home?” Like they would tell me it was all down to bad parenting, like did I ever feel like putting a tracker on his phone? Like it goes on forever. I reported myself to social services, told them that I was actually going to kill my son and that I needed help now, not later, now. And the guy asked me a few questions, I answered him, he started laughing at me down the phone, told me he could tell my son was from a loving, caring environment and I didn’t need social work input. Social work did get involved, they were in his life for three month and then decided to leave. The next day I kicked my son out.

Open-ended, non-blaming, informal support can be a lifeline for parents

Another thing Ellie loves about the group was how relaxed it feels, and how open and free the conversations are, and how it feels like a sanctuary for mums and parents to care for one another:

Ellie:  They [parents] can come, they can share as much or as little as they want but I think anybody that’s going through child exploitation or- or something similar, they need support. They need a group like this because it’s your saving grace, like it’s your time away from being a mum, being involved in that, you- you can walk away from it. For two hours we can sit and we can be us. We don’t have to be a mum, we can be a mum, we can talk about it, we don’t… but if people haven’t got that support it’s tough, it’s hard. And it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to live through.

What made the group so supportive is the feeling that nobody faulted participants for the harm their children are facing, nobody ever told the parents what to do or how to parent, but just were there to support, listen and share their experiences. Ellie also talked about how isolating being a parent of an exploited child is, and how important it is to make sure parents don’t feel blamed for the harm their child faces:

Ellie: some mums come and when I was getting told about the group, I thought it was a parent group, they were going to teach me how to be a parent and all that. And they come and then they see how laid back we are and they offload everything. And then they’re embarrassed, and then we don’t see them again

Hannah: They don’t want to come back

Ellie: … You push your friends away, you push your family away, you know it’s what- what have… what story have I told them? What story have I… can I tell them that, can I not tell them that? Like you know and you’re second guessing yourself and your… and so you prefer not to talk. So, you just shy away, you know. Somebody asks you, “How’re you doing? How’s Michael*?” Here we go again. Like, you know it’s the hardest thing and if you haven’t got what we’ve got here, then it… you- you’re going to struggle. It’s going to be a struggle. It- it put strain on my friendships, it put strain on my relationship, everything, you know. And then I could just go to these guys, and they never shouted, they never like you know. I never- I never argue, I never… there’s not a cross word ever, it’s just freedom, you know?

Hannah: It’s just important that you know it’s not your fault, I think would be the biggest message I think parents could probably learn from you is that what’s happening to young people when they’re being exploited is…

Ellie: Beyond control

The importance of care and compassion in services

Ellie talked to me for a while about what she thinks other services outside Action For Children need in order to become effective at supporting young people and their families. She talked about what role the Police can play to be supportive, rather than judgemental or punitive with families and young people, and explained how without fostering positive relationships with communities, hostile policing can make things worse:

Ellie: They shouldn’t be humiliating. Police should be approachable, they should be taught in mental health and stuff like that, and they don’t get none of this training and it’s kids now trying to police an area with kids and they’re like… they’ve got an attitude, they’ve got an attitude and they’re clashing, you know? The police officers need to come and speak to the mums and find out and they need to go away and they need to learn because unless something drastic changes, it’s not ever going to get any better. Because the police are isolating themselves and they’re unapproachable and it’s… you know

Hannah: It doesn’t feel like they’re part of the community.

Ellie: And then you’ve got, I call them the bad people. You’ve got the bad people then that come along and they’re nice to these kids and they say, “Come with me and I’ll give you money. Come with me and I’ll buy you a... Come with me and I’ll get you a Canada Goose jacket.” What parent can compete with that? I work full-time and I certainly can’t, you know?

The potential for guardianship

She also talked about the importance of those outside the family and services who can look out for and listen to young people, and how she felt there was so much potential for guardianship and support among community members to keep young people safe and support parents: 

Ellie: … all my life like I grew up in a small council village. Like I got grounded once in my whole life and it was my next-door neighbour but one that grounded me. Like I am a great believer in it takes a village to raise a child. It’s- it’s the parents like task to feed them, clothe them, keep a roof over their head but it’s you know, the shopkeeper to see you know if there’s somebody stood outside selling them drink. Like do you know what I mean? It's- it’s the police officer that walks down the road to know who they are and what they’re doing and whether there’s somebody breathing down their neck. It's the schoolteacher to make sure their mental health is okay, you know it’s not for somebody just to sweep under the- the carpet… they don’t go that extra mile anymore, you know, your neighbours close the door, and you never see them from one day to the next. Like you know half of the time you don’t even know their name, or you know… You just don’t know anymore because there’s not that community feel anywhere with you know the police or the school or you know. The school see you as a problem and it’s like, let’s just get rid of them. Why can’t you just listen to the child and talk to them and work out what’s going wrong?

Hannah: Why is it just… you know? They’re a bit hard work, just…

Ellie: So, then when we have got young people, sadly like what happened to Michael, who are at risk in the community, when the community’s not pulling together what chance have they got?

Reducing stigma and raising awareness is key

Thankfully, Ellie’s son is doing well now, and she has continued to attend the parents meeting, where she supports others going through the same thing. We finished the conversation reflecting on what might be a good approach for us all to take to tackle exploitation. Ellie talked about how much less isolating the experience would have been if there wasn’t such a taboo around exploitation, the importance of guardianship, and how we need to understand young people better than those targeting them for exploitative purposes:

Ellie: See- see when I was younger child exploitation didn’t happen in this country, you know. You very rarely, like you know looking back now it’s been around forever but see… it does happen in this country, it happens on your doorstep, it couldn’t happen to the boy next-door, it could happen in your own house. Like you know it’s so… it’s taking over because they’re children and they can’t get into trouble. They can, I know that now as a mum, but these- these bad people that are saying, “Do you know what, you can’t get into trouble mate, you’re a minor. Like do you know what, I can give you this, I can give you that.” How- how can you- how can you correct that, you know?

Hannah: Everybody knows about it.

Ellie: So, the man next door can hear what’s going on and he could react and want to make a difference. Then the man next door, they could hear, you know how do you get something so taboo that nobody believes is happening out there?

Hannah: We often used to say that the bad people are better than what professionals are at identifying our vulnerable kids.

Ellie: They know the kids that they can pick up on and somehow they’re doing a better job at picking them up than what we are before like doing that early intervention… It- it’s a- it’s a- it’s a taboo subject, you know. I- I didn’t like talking about it and I was going through it, you know. It- it’s shame, it’s humiliation, it’s failure, it’s…

Hannah: It’s stigma.

Ellie: It’s everything bad, that’s how you feel, yeah. So, if that’s how I feel, and I’m going through it, how do you feel not going through it? Do you know? And how do you make it so it’s an okay subject to talk about, you know?


*Names have been changed

There's more information about Action for Children and the support they provide here