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How social work is sending modern slavery packing

After bouncing repeatedly on top of my suitcase (finally endeavouring to zip it up) I wheeled my social work expectations and assumptions dutifully into the office. As a Frontline participant, I arrived on day one armed only with an open smile and my zipped-up luggage, the wheels of which were buckling under my positive expectation.

In the month or so that followed, the zipper has needed attention and there are a few dents in the old case, but my smile has remained. I have unpacked a lot of my preconceived ideas regarding social work practice, but I have continued to smile as I have been inspired through my engagement with some fantastic tutors, practitioners and families.

One particular group of people, whose commitment and passion have inspired my fledgling practice style, is the small but extremely dedicated team working for Stevenage Against Domestic Abuse (SADA).

This group of four core ladies work tirelessly to support survivors of all forms of domestic abuse, with a keen focus on low and medium risk cases to try and prevent the escalation of risk. The lasting impact upon children who live in a household with domestic abuse is extremely well documented – if not physically harmed, the detrimental emotional effects are far reaching and can last a lifetime. It has been reported that over half of all serious case reviews have domestic abuse as a contributing factor (Sidebotham: 2016). Two members of the SADA staff are experts by experience. Their personal stories as survivors really touched me when they described their full circle journey – they both now work for the exact same service they approached for help and guidance a number of years ago.

However, not content with merely tackling domestic abuse in Stevenage, the team is now launching a new initiative to offer a service to any victims of modern slavery. SADA believes that the awareness of this issue is vastly underestimated, that detection is poor, protection scarce and awareness lacking.

My awareness was certainly somewhat limited and this has provoked me to write a short piece in order to try and raise awareness more widely, not only amongst professionals within social services but the broader community too.

Within the last seven days of putting pen to paper there has been national coverage regarding incidents of modern slavery in Maidenhead, Coventry, Somerset, Hull, Birmingham and Milton Keynes. The issue is so significant that on 10 October this year Teresa May announced a £5 million fund to test more innovative ways to improve our response to assisting child victims of modern slavery. It has been estimated that there are up to 13,000 victims of modern slavery currently within the UK.

Alongside SADA’s initiative to assist and support victims of modern slavery, Stevenage has also signed the new Modern Slavery Charter to ensure that exploitation has no place within council supply chains. Cllr Sharon Taylor, Leader of Stevenage Borough Council, commented that “Modern Slavery is one of the great evils of our time and needs to be eradicated. It is only through the combined efforts of council led programmes like SADA Modern Slavery Initiative and the Modern Slavery Charter that we can start to implement changes at a community level to tackle such a horrific problem.”

So, even as I write, steps are being taken to uncover and prevent this heinous crime, certainly within Stevenage. But what can we do on a personal level? Awareness that it is occurring in our communities is the obvious first step. The professional curiosity we cultivate and maintain at work should still be activated in our daily interactions if we see or hear something amiss. Signs we should be mindful of include:

  • limited family contact
  • signs of physical abuse, bruising, unexplained injuries
  • distrust of authority
  • having no friends
  • a lack of local knowledge even if they have lived in the area for some time
  • acting as if under another’s control
  • appearing malnourished
  • disorientation
  • avoiding eye contact
  • unable to speak any English
  • a lack of belongings, especially official documents
  • wearing the same clothes most of the time

In our professional capacity, we must do our utmost to safeguard the children living within our authorities, and modern slavery is an issue of national importance. For example, several police forces have discovered that care homes have been ‘actively targeted’ to recruit vulnerable children as drug mules or for sexual exploitation. Some children are trafficked into the UK from countries such as Albania, Vietnam, Nigeria and Romania but there are also a significant number of British nationals affected by modern slavery.

Domestic abuse and modern slavery awareness will now forever be carried along in my social worker suitcase, so that I am able to use this knowledge to help any child or family that I work with.

And no matter how many times I have to fix the zip or glue the wheels back on, I will always remember the inspiring ladies at SADA.

If you believe that an adult or a child is a victim of modern slavery, then you can call the Modern Slavery Helpline on 0800 012 1700.

National Anti-Slavery Day is 18 October.