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The girls whose ‘boyfriends’ turn out to be pimps

2010 December 30
by Paul Vallely

Most evenings two or three gutsy women board a minibus for a tour of the town’s red light areas. They take a supply of sandwiches and hot drinks and drive around the local hot spots – streets frequented by prostitutes, the town centre, parks and the seedier bed & breakfast establishments. They are looking for trouble – or at least the potential for it.

“If we see a 13 year old girl with a can of beer on the streets or in a park at 10.30 at night we stop the minibus,” says Wendy Shepherd, the leader of the teams of specialist workers at the child sexual exploitation unit of children’s charity Barnardo’s in the north-east of England.

Four nights a week a vehicle tours the town in search of children vulnerable to sexual exploitation – and sometimes confronting the pimps who exploit them. They can be faced with harrowing situations like the aftermath of sexual assaults. Some nights they might work until 3am.

In most of Britain’s towns and cities there are such areas – and such children – even if most of the public prefers not to notice.  The problem is far greater – and more pernicious – than most of us might imagine.

Wendy Shepherd’s team routinely encounters children under 16 drunkenly tottering the streets, or sees girls of 14 sitting on a wall in a known prostitutes’ pick-up spot, or encounters desperate young women of 16 and over living in seedy bed & breakfast houses – which can become a nest of drug-dealing and sex-for-hire.  She asked me not to disclose the name of the town where we met for fear of identifying and stigmatising the girls involved.

“Many of these are run by unscrupulous landlords only interested in collecting the rent direct from housing benefit,” says Wendy, a bluff no-nonsense local woman with 15 years experience working with vulnerable children and adult prostitutes. “They can be terrible places with dirty stained mattresses, filthy fridges, cookers that don’t work and, even, with excrement and blood from previous tenants streaked on the walls.

Some of the existing tenants are insalubrious characters who offer free drugs to 16-year-old newcomers – and then demand that they carry drugs locally as payment. “One girl told us that, if she was forced to carry on living in such a B&B, she was convinced she would be raped by other tenants. Three days later she was,” Wendy recalls.  “Vulnerable young people shouldn’t be put in the same places as adults with these kind of problems.”

Among the seedier spots the Barnardo’s team routinely visits are the central bus station’s toilets where graffiti regularly advertises that 14 year old boys are wanted for sex. They even discovered a peephole by the urinals in the public toilets in a shopping mall next to a children’s crèche.

“If you pick up a stone you’ll find all sorts of things underneath,” Wendy Shepherd says, grimly. “And we’re not afraid to pick up the stone.”

Barnardo’s is one of the three charities being supported by Independent readers in this year’s Christmas Appeal. Its team has had significant success, in co-operation with the local police and council. The town, which the local evening paper says a decade ago had the unenviable reputation as the region’s prostitution capital, has since recorded dramatic falls in the number of kerb crawlers and prostitutes.

“Ten years ago there were 250 women on the streets here,” Wendy says. “Now that’s down to around 75. That success is down to a combination of a police crackdown on kerb crawlers and Barnardo’s interventions which range from simply offering young girls a lift home to devising longer-term strategies to help young women find an exit from prostitution. “We offer the Barnardo’s centre to them as a regular safe haven and we work with children and schools on prevention strategies to stop today’s teenagers becoming tomorrow’s prostitutes.”

But a new problem is emerging. Increasingly young girls are being groomed by older men and invited to “parties” where they are coerced into sex with strangers. “It begins with a young girl, who may have had a major row with her mother and walked out of her home, being befriended by an adult male,” Wendy says.

“They take them out for meals, buy them the latest mobile phone or snazzy trainers, and generally charm them. Then, when they are convinced they have found a great boyfriend, they get invited to a party where he says: ‘My mate fancies you, will you go to bed with him? You will if you love me’.”

One of the girls rescued by Barnardo’s explains the process from the inside: “My mum wasn’t around anymore, my dad was drinking and my sister was skipping school,” says Jess. “I was 15 and got involved with a group of friends outside school – they were older. At first I thought it was really cool to have older friends – they were drinking and there was a lot of drugs around.

“I was already drinking when I met them – it didn’t bother me,’ says Jess.

“But the drugs were new. I thought, if they were doing it – then it must be okay. And at first it was okay – I could get the money from my dad. But after a couple of weeks, I was getting hooked and there wasn’t enough money.

‘My new friends said that it was fine and introduced me to a new male friend. They said he fancied me and that I should go out with him. I didn’t realise what was happening – I was being set up. After I had slept with him I realised that I’d been used but it was too late: I was hooked on drugs. The situation was frightening – but I didn’t know how I could change things.”

Various techniques are used to disempower the girls. “They get taken somewhere in a  car,” says Wendy Shepherd. “They’re not sure where they are, how they’re going to get home. Or they go to the door at the party and find it locked. Or the ‘boyfriend’ says: ‘You haven’t told your Mam where you are, so what are you going to say to her? Or they say: ‘I’ve got photos of you; I’ll send them to your Mam. You’re on video; I’ll put it on the internet if you don’t co-operate. You’re nothing but a slapper; who’s going to believe you?”

They prey on the girls’ confused feelings. Some say ‘I like him, why is this happening to me?’. Others feel guilty or ashamed which keeps them silent. Others get hooked into a relationship with a man who alternates charm, or constantly saying he’s sorry, with coercion and threats.

“It’s really hard to talk…. out about girls being trafficked in this country; no one wants to believe it,” says Lizzie, who was sucked into a kind of sexual slavery when she was just 12 after she was taken into care. “The girls in the home were all a bit older than me and were going out with older men, at first I just tagged along,” she says.

To a 12-year-old it all seemed very exciting. “They gave me drink and smokes – it was a laugh. Then one man started to take a special interest in me. He was much older, he was protective – I felt looked after, wanted, loved even. He gave me everything I wanted and when I was 13 he handed over the keys to a flat and said ‘It’s yours, use it when you need it’”.

For a youngster with no family support and little self-esteem it seemed like a dream come true, but before long it was pay-back time. One night her ‘boyfriend’ asked her to dress-up for a party. She was taken to London and was told to have sex with various ‘friends’ of his. Next came ‘parties’ in Manchester, Leeds and Bradford.

“He’d take me to hotels, some nights two or three,” Lizzie remembers. “I never saw any money change hands. Some men asked ‘How old is she?’. Some asked ‘Have you got any younger?’ They were really sick,” she says. “I wanted to escape, but he just controlled me – it was a mental thing, I was terrified,” she says, looking back.

Some of these trapped children attempt suicide. Others internalise the behaviour and make it their identity.

There comes a point, says Wendy Shepherd, where “in the end, they say, this is what I do.” In conversation with adult prostitutes over the years, she says, “you find that they start at 14, on average”.

Barnardo’s strategy is to offer alternatives to children before they become enmeshed in such traps. One of those who has been successfully helped is Kaylee, who was 15 when a Barnardo’s education worker paid a visit to her school. Her teachers earmarked Kaylee to see the worker because all the ‘risk’ signs were there: she had family problems, was using alcohol and drugs and was staying out at night.

Kaylee was selected as part of the group to do a diary project and to talk about the dangers of abusive relationships and the help offered by Barnardo’s. It made her realise that she too was being ‘groomed’ for sexual exploitation.

But she was already entangled. “I didn’t see myself as a victim, but I realised that what was happening to me was wrong. Then one night I was raped. I didn’t know what to do but I kept thinking about the lesson in school and although I was really frightened I found the address and went to Barnardo’s.”

Two years on, Barnardo’s have helped Kaylee get a place at college, gain qualifications, get a job and find her own place to live.  “I knew that the drugs and abuse wasn’t my destiny,” she says today. “So I changed it – with the project’s help.”


Some names have been changed to protect the children in this article