Social workers play a key role in preventing child exploitation
Published Wed 28th Sep, 2022

Lisa Finch, Team Manager (Vulnerable, Exploited, Missing and Trafficked Team)

Hull Council’s Vulnerable, Exploited, Missing and Trafficked (VEMT) team play a crucial role in supporting young victims of exploitation, and in working preventatively to tackle issues like modern slavery, human trafficking and criminal exploitation across the city. Lisa’s role as Team Manager means that she provides day to day support and oversight for her team, as well as looking at problems more strategically with a wide range of partner agencies.

The team is made up of three social workers, two youth workers, one Youth Development worker and two specialist officers who are also qualified social workers. One is a Contextual Safeguarding Officer, looking at the wider social environment to assess potential risk, while the other specialist is a National Referral Mechanism (NRM) Officer, and focuses on issues relating to modern slavery. As Team Manager, Lisa is also keen to highlight that having a varied skillset over and above formal qualifications is a useful asset.

“I love the dynamics and forward thinking of this team, and I love tapping into their skills as well. It doesn’t always have to be social work skills – we’ve got one team member who’s really arty, so she can go in and do all sorts of exciting stuff with young people. We’ve got a male member of the team who’s fantastic with adolescent males, he’s completely on their level. Using these skills really helps young people to feel comfortable.”

Like many social workers, Lisa’s path into the profession seems unlikely at first. However, with hindsight she feels that some of her early jobs helped to prepare her for a career working with young people in crisis.

“At 21 I was actually a holiday rep – as a holiday rep I probably did more social work than I realised at the time! Sorting out problems, dealing with crises, you name it.”

A qualified nursery nurse, Lisa spent some time working as a nursery manager before deciding to try working with an older age group. This led her to a role in youth justice, which provided her with an understanding of the challenges facing young people in the criminal justice system, which has proven to be valuable in her current role with Hull.

“People laugh when I say that every field has degrees of social work in, but I’m right! As a holiday rep, I constantly dealt with conflict and crises, in youth justice it was the child-first approach and relationship building with young people to try and break that cycle.”

Lisa was supported by her employer to complete a social work degree at the University of Lincoln while working full time, and they also helped out further by providing placements, which helped to make the qualification achievable and provided valuable experience. Lisa believes that the theoretical side of studying social work can be just as important as placements in the field.

“That’s something I do greatly appreciate and value – I deliver some lectures now at the university about exploitation and trafficking and always say that it’s not just about learning in the field, you need to learn at university and carry that forward.”

As someone who now helps to educate social work students, Lisa had some advice for anyone going on placement for the first time:

“I’d say don’t disregard your university knowledge. I know that a lot of people say your lectures don’t prepare you for practice – yes they do, if you dig deep and reflect on them! I’d also say come in with an open mind, because every day is a challenge! Push yourself out of your comfort zone. I’d always worked with children and young people, so for my second placement I deliberately chose adults, and I’m really glad I did because it helped me to become a much better practitioner.”

Overall, Lisa feels that Team Manager is a role at the ideal level for her, as it gives her the opportunity to bring about positive change and realise her team’s ideas while staying connected to frontline practice.

“At this time, I don’t aspire to go up to that next level because I’m passionate about keeping one foot on the ground, working and engaging with young people and seeing those positive impacts. I’ve always got another initiative up my sleeve!”

The initiatives that Lisa and her team look to set up often focus on preventing exploitation. Often, this means engaging with the community or with other organisations and institutions to educate people about the risks or share information. The VEMT Team work closely with colleagues from neighbouring authorities, Humberside Police, the education service and the courts. Having strong links with these partners is particularly important to this area of social work practice, as exploitation and trafficking can be very challenging to track.

“The young people that we support can be very transient, because of county lines and trafficking concerns. So it’s really, really important that we work well with our neighbouring authorities. Partnership working is key – we value our partners so much, because we’re not an island. We can’t support these children in isolation.”

Alongside these formal links, working with the wider community to raise awareness of risks is hugely important.

“When we’re looking at contextual safeguarding the traditional model of social work was very much about safeguarding in the home. For a few years now we’ve been looking through a wider lens at safeguarding in the community. Safeguarding is everybody’s responsibility, whether that’s a qualified social worker, the manager of a local pizzeria, park wardens, it’s everyone’s responsibility. So we’re working with taxis, hotels, retailers, to offer them training in what to look for to spot child trafficking and exploitation. We’re ultimately hoping to launch a city-wide pledge to support this, so it’s exciting times in Hull!”

Engagement work with children and young people across Hull is another part of the VEMT Team’s toolkit. When reflecting on issues at a strategic level, Lisa values the input of her team, highlighting a successful response to a concerning influx of missing children last year as an example of their process:

“We were recognised by the NWG as a model of best practice, because last year we had an influx of 10 and 11-year-olds going missing for the first time. We discussed this at a team meeting and the team decided to do some education work. All of last year and into this year, we’ve been around primary schools in the Hull area to speak to Year 6 pupils about the dangers of going missing. It’ll be two or three years until we can really tell what the impact has been.”

In cases where a child has gone missing, the team will carry out a ‘return home interview’ with the family. They always follow this up with a second visit, which helps to further reduce the chance of a second missing episode. Although cases of missing or exploited young people tend to attract media attention, Lisa was keen to point out that most of her team’s preventative work goes unreported, because the success of this means that these situations are prevented from happening.

“In all honesty you get isolated incidents which are reported on by the media, but without the preventative work we do with our partners in other sectors you would see a lot more. When you’re a social worker you have to expect to go out there and positively challenge some of these misconceptions. I’m sure we’ve all commented on a media story, but without the knowledge you don’t really have the insight to understand it.”

For Lisa, the most rewarding thing about working on the VEMT team is when a breakthrough is made that helps keep a child safe.

“We call it a reachable moment, it’s when I see progress, positives and new beginnings for young people, that’s what really excites me. It can be the smallest things. We have a young person who’s had a very difficult journey and progress was made last week when he took his own initiative to send a message to his social worker on Messenger. It seems small but for him that’s a huge step.”

Ultimately, for Lisa and the VEMT Team, children’s social work matters because it’s all about supporting people during difficult moments and providing the reassurance that they would expect themselves.

“It matters to me because I’ve got a child, I’m a mum. I would expect a good standard of service if it was my child. I would expect answers, I would expect to be kept informed, and I would expect that the social worker who came to speak to me could answer my questions. I feel very fond of our city, I feel particularly fond of our children and young people and the challenges that they face. If a child needs you, they need to be able to reach out knowing that they’re going to get a good response.”