When I was twelve, for a brief time my career ambition was to walk the streets. Things weren’t exactly great at home and I didn’t place a lot of value on myself. Having gone through puberty early, I was receiving sexualised attention from older males that I simply wasn’t equipped to handle. In my mixed up teen mind, I mistook this attention for the love I was craving. I was ripe for sexual exploitation.
Now, when I look back on my teenage years, I feel lucky. Not about the hard stuff that happened – but that worse didn’t happen. Fortunately, my basket of risk and protective factors had a few positives in it too. I was intelligent enough to be in the top sets at my comprehensive school so my peer group were generally less screwed up than me. I had middle class parents who, for all their faults, practised a baseline of supervision that kept me largely in sight in my most vulnerable years. And, despite a self-destructive streak a mile wide, I had a belief in happiness that was rooted in a carefree early childhood playing make-believe in a quiet country lane. Take just one of those elements away and I don’t think I would have made it. Somewhere, in a parallel universe is a me who ran into the wrong person and mistook grooming for love.
Now, when I deliver seminars to parents of teenagers, I always tell them that I was a very troublesome teenager. Seeing me standing there in a suit with a smile on my face, I’m not sure how much they believe me. But looking back, the fact that I got through those years unscathed is a bloody miracle. Not all teenagers are so lucky.
It’s easy to dismiss troublesome teens as feckless or feral. But difficult circumstances can strike any home and vulnerability is closer to all of us than we like to admit. There are many reasons why vulnerable teenagers fall through the cracks between childhood and adulthood. Many of them are dealing with multiple issues such as lack of support, parental mental health issues, and low self-esteem. It is a seriously awkward age and it doesn’t take much to tip the balance between waving and drowning.
And – much as we hate to think of it – there are people out there who specialise in sniffing out vulnerable children and teenagers (no matter what their background) and recruiting them for their own purposes.
Once children reach the age of 16, they no longer qualify for support and protection from children’s services. Not yet adults, and without a firm foundation beneath them, it’s no wonder that some teenagers lose their way and fall victim to exploitation. Teenagers aged 16 to 17 years old are more likely to go missing or to be the victim of violent crime than any other age group.
Children leaving care are especially at risk. As a society, we take children into care when their families are unable to protect them or are actively harming them. In doing so, we make a promise – that we as a society will be their guardians, we will take the role of parents and ensure they have somewhere safe to live and a place in school, that they are nurtured and have their needs met.
Well until they are 16 years old, that is. Then we send them out to make their way in the adult world as best they can. Really? Would you do that to your own child? Then why are we doing it to the children we have taken into our care?
The Children’s Society’s Seriously Awkward campaign is calling on the government to change the legal framework for older teenagers to ensure they are protected from harm. Please support them and sign their petition so that no teenager has to rely on luck to be the teen that got away.
I was delighted to be asked by The Children’s Society to be a campaign ambassador for their Seriously Awkward campaign. Having worked in child protection and having been a seriously awkward teenager, it is a campaign that resonates very personally for me.
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