'Talking won't change what happened to our girls ... but it can help other parents'
In the third of a series of articles about the work of Safe and Sound Derby, Nicola Allen talks to the parents of two young victims of sexual exploitation.
PARENTS Julia, John and Kate do not like being told that they are brave.
They have stood in front of hundreds of police officers and social workers across the country and told them how their teenage daughters were sexually exploited.
But for them, it's their daughters who are the brave ones, not them.
They have been sharing their stories as part of training organised by Safe and Sound Derby, a charity that supports victims of child sexual exploitation and their families.
The aim of the parents' talks is to give agency workers and police an insight into their experience and offer advice as to what could be done differently to make the situation any easier.
Julia, John and Kate have spoken at Safe and Sound Derby's national conference in London, in front of an audience of social workers, police and paediatricians in Oxford and to 240 police officers in Surrey.
Each of the parents has had a different experience of child sexual exploitation.
Julia and John's daughter was groomed over the internet while Kate's daughter was a victim in Operation Kern, a major police investigation in Derby which saw eight men jailed for a total of 42 years.
During the talk, Kate is asked to describe how she found out that her daughter was being sexually exploited, how she found the legal process and she is also asked if there is anything that could have been done to make the situation easier.
Kate said she felt very positive about going out and speaking about her experience.
She said: "Even if we can change things for just one parent and make it easier for them then it's worth it. People will often come up to us at the end and say we are brave for what we have done, but it's not us who are the brave ones. It's our daughters who have gone through this terrible ordeal.
"After you've done the talk you feel emotionally drained. At the session in Oxford we watched a play called Chelsea's Choice and it was very hard-hitting – it doesn't over-dramatise things but it shows how easy it is for a child to be groomed.
"As a parent whose daughter was a victim, you wonder how she got caught up in it. Watching that play you can see how the perpetrators manipulate their victims and focus on the kids' self-esteem and lack of self-confidence.
"The audience can ask us questions at the end and we want them to feel that they can ask us anything, regardless of how upsetting it is. We get the chance to talk a bit about our backgrounds so that the people there can see that this kind of thing really can happen to anyone."
Julia is asked how she felt when she found out that her daughter was being groomed on the internet and how the whole process affected her marriage.
She said: "When children get involved in child sexual exploitation, there is so much focus on the children that people forget the repercussions are huge and if our marriage is falling apart then how can our child cope?
"There will be parents involved and often siblings and grandparents. The whole family has to work together. It's just about understanding that the grooming process has a massive impact.
"I have had people come up to me after I've done the talk and thank me and say that it's really opened their eyes. The day after you've done it, you are just drained. We did one session and there was a soldier there who dealt with Army families. He had been out to Iraq and Afghanistan and he was really choked up by what we said. He really struggled.
"It's getting easier because we are learning as we are going along. We have ideas on how we would like to change our presentations and our confidence is growing.
"We can't change what's happened to our girls but we could help other parents."
A parent support worker at Safe and Sound Derby who helps to deliver the training sessions said the parents' talks had a massive impact.
She said: "The parents are the best people to talk directly to agencies and police about their own experience and what could have been done differently to make life easier. They can say why something didn't work for them and suggest what could be done about it.
"A lot of people hold blame but these parents know that ultimately it's the perpetrators who are to blame – if they weren't out there then this would not have happened."
Nathalie Walters, chief executive of Safe and Sound, added: "These parents are determined to make a difference and help others who may be in a similar situation. We are very grateful to them for sharing what has been a very traumatic experience for them and their children. Their personal accounts really hit home and we've had some fantastic feedback from the talks."
Detective Inspector Martin Sables, of Surrey police, said the force was so impressed by the training session that they were looking into setting up a service similar to the one offered in Derby.
He said: "We were really impressed. There's a lot of help there for victims but not much for their parents. The parents who spoke came across really well – it makes such an impact when you hear a story like this from someone who has personal experience.
"The feedback we've had from officers has been very good. A lot of them have said how powerful the talk was and how much it has impacted on them."
Detective Superintendent Andy Stokes, the head of Derbyshire police's public protection unit, said: "You have to be of the mind-set that sexual exploitation can happen to any child in the country. It's not just kids going off the rails.
"Speaking to some of the parents, who are lovely people that have had the misfortune to find out their children have been sexually exploited, just makes you determined to investigate it."