By Tracy Harrison, chief executive of local specialist child sexual exploitation charity Safe and Sound

A key part of Safe and Sound’s work across Derbyshire is to support the families of children and young people who are victims of or at risk of child sexual exploitation (CSE).

Parents and the wider family tell us that their overwhelming feelings when they discover their child has – or is still being – sexually exploited are anger, helplessness and guilt.

Our over-riding message to them from the outset is that, just as their son or daughter is not to blame for what has happened, they as parents are equally not to blame.

These children are targeted by individuals or groups of ruthless and manipulative criminals and a key tactic is to deliberately estrange children from their parents to exert greater control.

Children and young people often believe they are in a ‘loving’ relationship with the perpetrator.  Others have been viciously threatened to keep quiet for fear of their own, or their family’s safety.

Therefore, these young victims are reluctant to talk to anyone – let alone their families – about what has or is still happening.

The first stage in supporting young victims is to help them recognise that they have been groomed and exploited – and families have a vital role in this process.

They need to make it clear to their child they can always come and talk to them – no matter what they have to say — and that the family will always be there for them.

One father whose daughter was a victim of CSE told me that the turning point for them was recognising that they had to start listening and believing her – rather than blaming her for running away and closing down communications with them.

Whilst it is obviously important to keep children safe, families also need to look after themselves during these difficult times.

A common aspect of CSE is that children go missing for increasing periods of time.  This obviously causes huge levels of anxiety and sleep deprivation for the families waiting at home.

Sexually exploited children often find it difficult to control their anger and direct it at their family members through physical and verbal abuse.

Others avoid going to school, cut themselves off from their friends and often self-harm – all of which puts a huge strain on family life.

Coping and living with CSE can seriously affect mental and physical health so it is important to speak honestly with a GP about the stress they are under.

It’s also important to recognise that, even when the abuse stops, recovery does not happen overnight for the young person or the family so support from Safe and Sound is ongoing for as long as it is needed.

With greater awareness of CSE amongst professionals and wider communities alike – the issue of CSE is finally being recognised with the severity it deserves and it is vital that parents do not give up on the situation.

They need to make all the professionals who come into contact with their child – from teachers to social workers – aware of their concerns and be persistent even if they feel they are not being taken seriously.

Furthermore, families should keep rigorous diaries and notes of all incidences as these will be invaluable in any future court proceedings.

Throughout these dark times, it is vital that parents recognise that they are not alone and that there is help available.

Please visit the Safe and Sound website  for more information about support available to victims of sexual exploitation and their families and how to support the charity’s work to protect local children and young people.