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New research: Independent guardians provide crucial support for child survivors

Press release: Independent guardians are giving child survivors crucial support within an increasingly challenging context

Published: 26th March 2024

Having an independent guardian to support young survivors of child trafficking is crucial to their protection, safety and recovery in an increasingly difficult environment, latest research shows. The research has called for a full roll-out of the service across all of England and Wales, nearly ten years after the Modern Slavery Act established its provision.

Led by academics at Cardiff University and funded by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC), the research is the first child-centred evaluation of the Independent Child Trafficking Guardianship (ICTG) service, a state-commissioned support intervention in England and Wales currently contracted to children’s charity Barnardo’s.

The research, which assessed the effectiveness of the service based on what is important to child survivors, found that young people consider the service to be vital in helping them navigate an increasingly challenging and complex environment, linking up the different services and professionals involved in their care.

However, ten years since its first pilot, the ICTG service currently covers only two-thirds of local authorities in England and Wales. The Home Office has recently shared plans to finally roll it out from 2025/6.

“Children who experience trauma connected to modern slavery often find it hard to trust anyone and they’re having to navigate a complex and often hostile environment,” said Dr Anna Skeels of Cardiff University, who led the research. ‘The independent guardianship service is helping them build this trust and rebuild their lives again and it’s crucial that all children in England and Wales experiencing exploitation can access that support.”

The scale and the degree of the problem the service is responding to is growing, according to independent guardians participating in the research: they reported seeing an increased volume of cases of children being exploited or at risk of it, as well as an increase in violence and serious harm amidst the exploitation.

Guardians expressed frustration and concern about the limits placed on them by an increasingly challenging legal and policy context, especially in relation to immigration. Such external barriers limit the service outcomes for children and young people. For example, where durable solutions for young people seeking asylum were noted in the case closure summaries analysed for the research, 67% of these young people were still waiting for an immigration or asylum decision at point of transition from the service.

Evidence within the closure summaries suggested that for many of these young people, waiting for their asylum decision was the biggest factor negatively impacting on their mental health and wellbeing. If their status is not confirmed, young people can’t plan long-term, knowing that after they turn 18, they are at risk of being removed from the country and their lives being uprooted once again.

According to the research, children and young people affected by modern slavery consider guardians as instrumental to their protection, participation and achievement of positive outcomes, particularly in achieving safety.

Examples of crucial interventions cited in the research include keeping Children’s Services cases open when other agencies had been trying to close them, ensuring the safety of modern slavery survivors testifying in court against traffickers, and charges being dropped against young people in cases of exploitation where they were linked to criminal activities such as the county lines practice.

Building trusting relationships with children and young people over a long period of time is one of the main factors highlighted by children and their families as key to the success of the service. Young research participants reported that this relationship helped them to trust others, enabling them to socialise, access education and connect with professionals, wider services and opportunities.

A young modern slavery survivor and research participant said about their ICTG practitioner: “You were the only one, from the beginning, who really talked to me.”

Another young survivor said: “When I first came to this house, I was so lonely, and you [the ICTG practitioner] came, and you befriended me, and you were so kind and caring. And you were always there for me. You made me feel not lonely anymore.”

A foster carer quoted in the research said: “You [the ICTG worker] are the only one that I think [the young person] has really trusted and has helped him.”

Liz Williams, Policy Impact Manager at the Modern Slavery PEC, which funded the study, said: “It's positive to see the guardianship service being so valued by young people affected by modern slavery.

“We hope this evidence can help further inform the full roll out of the service across England and Wales, nearly ten years after trials of the service began, as part of the holistic support needed for children who have been trafficked.”

Lynn Perry MBE, the Chief Executive of Barnardo’s, said: “This research emphasises just how crucial support is for children who are survivors of horrific crimes like trafficking and modern slavery.

“We welcome the Government’s decision to finally ensure this service is rolled out across England and Wales, as has been promised for a number of years. It is clear from this research that thousands more children will benefit from this expansion.”

Hannah Stott of Safe to Grow, who was a collaborator on the research team, said: “This research further solidifies the value that guardians bring to the lives of children and young people who have been trafficked and the wider professional network working alongside them.

“I fully welcome the Government’s recent announcement to make ICTGs available across the whole of England and Wales. This will ensure all children and young people identified as potentially trafficked have access to the specialist support they need.”

This research was designed to place the participation of children and young people with lived experience of modern slavery at its centre and involved ten young advisers who fed into the project design and findings.