The significance of love in relation to looked-after children and child sexual exploitation

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  • 1 The University of Salford, UK
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Drawing on the knowledge that looked-after children are disproportionately involved in child sexual exploitation, this critical systematic literature review considers the significance of ‘love’, using bell hooks’ ‘love ethic’. This literature review applies a systematic approach to retrieving literature and includes ten peer-reviewed journal articles containing primary research from individuals with lived experience of being a looked-after child and child sexual exploitation, or professionals within the field. Thematic analysis is used to identify the themes of risk, agency and relational practice. Together, these explore how dominant discourses of neoliberalism, patriarchy and capitalism shape modern social work, increase the risk of child sexual exploitation for looked-after children and maintain conditions needed for child sexual exploitation to function. bell hooks’ conceptualisation of the ‘love ethic’ is discussed as a possible framework in meeting the unmet emotional and economic needs of looked-after children through using ‘love as action’. ‘Love’, critical thinking and critical reflection are then recommended for social work.

Abstract

Drawing on the knowledge that looked-after children are disproportionately involved in child sexual exploitation, this critical systematic literature review considers the significance of ‘love’, using bell hooks’ ‘love ethic’. This literature review applies a systematic approach to retrieving literature and includes ten peer-reviewed journal articles containing primary research from individuals with lived experience of being a looked-after child and child sexual exploitation, or professionals within the field. Thematic analysis is used to identify the themes of risk, agency and relational practice. Together, these explore how dominant discourses of neoliberalism, patriarchy and capitalism shape modern social work, increase the risk of child sexual exploitation for looked-after children and maintain conditions needed for child sexual exploitation to function. bell hooks’ conceptualisation of the ‘love ethic’ is discussed as a possible framework in meeting the unmet emotional and economic needs of looked-after children through using ‘love as action’. ‘Love’, critical thinking and critical reflection are then recommended for social work.

Introduction

When we love children we acknowledge by our every action that they are not property, that they have rights –that we respect and uphold their rights. Without justice there can be no love. (hooks, 2001: 30)

This systematic literature review will explore the significance of ‘love’ in relation to the link between looked-after children (LAC) and child sexual exploitation (CSE) within a social work context. Historically, CSE has been understood through a criminal lens that positions young people with experience of CSE as ‘child prostitutes’ and ‘promiscuous’, ‘out of control’ children (Ansbro, 2014). Despite ongoing campaigns for authorities to recognise these children as victims of abuse and exploitation (Melrose, 2010; Warrington, 2010), it was not until high-profile cases made the news that CSE was recognised within exploitative terms. As a result, in 2009, the term ‘child sexual exploitation’ was adopted in place of ‘child prostitute’ across all local authorities (Department of Health, 2000). The change in response to CSE therefore raises questions around the validity of research and data prior to the year 2000 and a need to review contemporary literature.

Research suggests that LAC make up over a third of CSE cases (Brown, 2019) and that unmet need is the main causal factor (Hallett, 2016). Stein (2008) argued that LAC and care leavers are often ill-equipped with the emotional and social skills to build healthy relationships due to a history of abuse, family breakdown and the care system. Those who were both LAC and survivors of CSE state that unmet emotional and economic needs made them more susceptible to offers of love, affection, money and drugs from perpetrators of CSE, regardless of the associated risk factors (Melrose, 2010; Hallett, 2016). There is little literature on why and how emotional needs are unmet for this specific group of children and young people (Coy, 2008). To explore this relationship in more depth, the lens of ‘love’ will be used to review literature in order to better understand its significance.

Why love?

Across research, it is noted that love and loving relationships are a dominant feature within the context of LAC and CSE (Coy, 2008; Melrose, 2010; Hallett, 2016). LAC are often removed from families where love should or did exist, and this loss or absence of love could be relevant to understanding the relationship between LAC and CSE (Brown, 2019). CSE revolves around a relationship that is often disguised as a ‘loving’ peer or as a romantic partner (Melrose, 2010).

For the purpose of this review, love will be explored in an emotional sense and as bell hooks’ (2001) ‘love ethic’. The ‘love ethic’ of hooks (2001: 54) encompasses ‘trust, commitment, care, respect, knowledge, and responsibility’, offering a framework that understands love as a conscious action and not always as emotion. Through using the ‘love ethic’ framework within the search criteria, this review will attempt to identify and review literature that, knowingly or unknowingly, considers ‘love’, both as emotion and as action, in relation to the link between LAC and CSE.

The next section of this literature review evidences the methodology used to identify relevant peer-reviewed journal articles. These articles are then reviewed, and common themes are identified. The significance of love within the field of LAC and CSE is discussed with regards to the ‘love ethic’ and within the current neoliberal context. Recommendations for social work practice are then considered.

Methodology: the systematic approach

The advantages of a systematic approach are that it is transparent in its process, is easily repeatable and can provide comprehensive coverage of chosen issues (Kiteley and Stogdon, 2014). However, although the systematic approach may be effective at finding out ‘what’ works for social work practice, it is not always able to answer why certain things work.

Definitions

In order to maintain clarity, it is useful to define each area of the review before exploring the search terms. The main areas are ‘love’, ‘LAC’ and ‘CSE’, and the literature needs to consider the link between LAC and CSE through the framework of love and using the principles of the ‘love ethic’:

  • Love: love is difficult to define as it has many different interpretations (hooks, 2001). For the purpose of this review, bell hooks’ definition of love is used, which includes respect, trust, knowledge, responsibility, commitment and care; together, these make up the ‘love ethic’ (hooks, 2001).

  • LAC: LAC are defined as children that have come into the care of the state through a care order granted by the courts, or children who are in the care of the state for more than 24 hours.1

  • CSE: CSE is defined as:

    A form of child sexual abuse. It occurs when an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator. The victim may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears consensual. Child sexual exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology. (Department for Education, 2017: 5)

Although not a key term within the search terms, it is useful to define the two uses of the word ‘care’ that are used within this literature review. Hereafter, ‘Care’ (with an upper-case ‘C’) will be used to denote systems and procedures of the local authority Care system (which possibly involve a child being subject of a Care order). The term ‘care’ (with a lower-case ‘c’) will be used to denote care in the sense of being kind and looking after someone’s emotional and physical well-being.

Selecting search terms

It is important that search terms are clear and focused in order to identify as much relevant and current literature as possible. For ‘love’, the search terms chosen were ‘love’ and/or respect, care, knowledge, commitment, trust and responsibility. For LAC, phrases used were consistent with modern policy, legislation and literature on LAC: ‘looked after child’, ‘LAC’, ‘residential children’s home’, ‘residential children’, ‘children’s Care home’, ‘children in Care’, ‘residential Care’ and ‘Care experienced’.

For CSE, there were a few factors to consider when selecting search terms due to the reframing of CSE over the past 20 years (Melrose, 2010). Many authors highlight issues around the definition and terming of CSE (Coy, 2009; Melrose, 2010; Hallett, 2016; Franklin et al, 2018). CSE is a complex and multifaceted issue, and entry pathways have only recently begun to be explored. There have been concerns that the government, policymakers and media have focused on the ‘pimping and grooming’ narrative, and this has meant that CSE has been predominantly understood within these ‘narrow’ terms (Melrose, 2010). More recent research has identified other pathways into CSE, for example, ‘drifting’, ‘partying’ and ‘online’, which require equal attention (Melrose, 2010). To explore the full context of CSE, broader umbrella search terms were used. These are ‘CSE’, ‘child sexual exploitation’ and ‘sexual exploitation’. I chose to only use articles from 2005 to 2020 in order to only allow for current literature that considers the changing understanding and contextual implications of CSE. Please see Figure 1 for Search Term Sequencing.

Figure 1: A table of the number of articles received from Stanford University Online Library, and PyscINFO database for the different search terms that were used for a research.
Figure 1:

Search term sequencing

Citation: Critical and Radical Social Work 2022; 10.1332/204986021X16523430934288

The literature search

Using the search terms identified earlier, the systematic review was conducted using two databases: PyschINFO and the University of Salford online library. This initially retrieved 2,054 articles. In order to maintain a thorough exploration of the literature, every title was screened for relevance:

  • Inclusion criteria: articles must include the relationship between CSE and LAC, be written in English, have been published between 2005 and 2020 in peer-reviewed journals, include primary quantitative and/or qualitative data, and be from the UK.

  • Exclusion criteria: articles outside the inclusion terms and those including ‘children with disability’. From screening the titles and abstracts, it appeared that children with disabilities were a group within LAC and CSE that had additional complex and specific needs, that is, cognitive and physical challenges, which required a specific and thorough focus in order to be explored in depth. It was decided that articles specifically about children with disability would be excluded from this review, as they had a different focus – one that centred on their disability.

From this process, 31 articles were retrieved for closer review. On closer examination, using the inclusion and exclusion criteria, many articles failed to explore the relationship between LAC, CSE and/or love, and a total of 21 were excluded as a result. Ten articles contained this relationship, and these were identified for review. Please see Figure 2 for Literature Search Diagrams and Figure 3 for Articles Chosen in the Systemic Review.

Figure 2: A schematic diagram of selecting and rejecting the articles that were collected for a research.
Figure 2:

Literature search diagram

Citation: Critical and Radical Social Work 2022; 10.1332/204986021X16523430934288

Figure 3: A table of the articles used in the systemic review.
Figure 3:

Articles included in the systematic review

Citation: Critical and Radical Social Work 2022; 10.1332/204986021X16523430934288

Thematic analysis

I applied Nowell et al’s (2017) six-phase framework for clarity in my application of thematic analysis: Phase 1 is familiarising yourself with your data; Phase 2 is generating initial codes; Phase 3 is searching for themes; Phase 4 is reviewing themes; Phase 5 is defining and naming themes; and Phase 6 is producing the report (Nowell et al, 2017: 5). The core themes identified were risk, relational practice and agency. The analysis aimed to be transparent in its process, have a coherent audit trail and be conducted in a methodical manner (Attride-Stirling, 2001). I was reflexive throughout the thematic analysis to produce meaningful, trustworthy and credible results (Nowell et al, 2017). It is important to note that I am a white, British woman, with no lived experience of the areas that I am researching, and that I am aware that this may impact my own conceptualisation and analysis of the issues raised. It is also important to note that I am influenced by multiple lenses for critical analysis, the core ones being feminism, Crenshaw’s (1991) theory on intersectionality and Bourdieu’s (1977) theory of structure, agency and habitus. Please see Figure 4 for Synthesis Table of Reviewed Literature and Figure 5 for Thematic Analysis diagram.

Figure 4: A table lists the title, author and date of publishing in the first column and geography of study, methodology, and sub themes and main themes in the subsequent columns.
Figure 4: A table lists the title, author and date of publishing in the first column and geography of study, methodology, and sub themes and main themes in the subsequent columns.
Figure 4:

Synthesis table of reviewed literature

Citation: Critical and Radical Social Work 2022; 10.1332/204986021X16523430934288

Figure 5: A schematic diagram of analyzing the coding themes, sub themes, and core themes.
Figure 5:

Thematic analysis diagram

Citation: Critical and Radical Social Work 2022; 10.1332/204986021X16523430934288

Review of the literature

In this section, the identified literature will be explored in relation to the themes of risk, agency and relational practice. The relationship between LAC and CSE is referenced in much of the research around CSE, yet few studies have sought to explore the reasons as to why this relationship exists (Coy, 2008). A concept that appears to be integral to the identified literature is the way in which chosen language positions the young people as either victims or agents with power. Within this review, it is understood that these young people are both. Many of the studies included in this review explore the ways in which the Care system exacerbates young people’s vulnerabilities, both economically and emotionally (Melrose, 2010; Hallett, 2016; Brown, 2019), and that this increased vulnerability allows perpetrators of CSE to coerce, exploit and meet the unmet needs of young people (Coy, 2008; 2009; Hallett, 2016; Brown, 2019). Some authors do not reference neoliberalism directly in their work; however, they do discuss the implications of neoliberal measures on practice. This suggests that differing lenses are used by the authors and also highlights a need for research to critically reflect on and identify the political ideologies that shape social work and the impact they have on practice.

Theme 1: risk

The theme of risk in relation to CSE and LAC brings to light current implications of the tools and frameworks used in practice, such as risk assessment, education and Care systems. The Care system is understood throughout the literature as seeking to reduce risk and safeguard children, yet it was often simultaneously experienced by the young people as mimicking the controlling abuse of the perpetrators (Coy, 2008; 2009; Melrose, 2010; Hallett, 2016; Lefevre et al, 2017; Franklin et al, 2018; Brown, 2019).

Franklin et al (2018) focused on risk assessment in relation to CSE, highlighting an inconsistency of UK assessment frameworks. An unclear use and definition of the term ‘risk’ was identified and found to be producing incorrect responses between ‘risk’ and ‘abuse’ for the young people involved. Although risk assessment is inescapable, it was found that the process focused too strongly on risk and the act of CSE (Brown, 2019), resulting in many practitioners failing to hear the child’s voice (Hallett, 2016), as well as missing the wider context of CSE and therefore the needs of the young people involved (Hallett, 2016; Brown, 2019).

Lefevre et al’s (2017: 2457) research identifies the difficulty of assessment within CSE due to its ‘newly constructed domain’, questioning how risk can be assessed while there is a lack of clarity as to what constitutes a risk factor within CSE. A unifying and effective assessment tool and/or framework was unclear within the study; instead, differing assessments and measures of what constituted risk resulted in inconsistent communication and interpretation.

A difficulty faced within the risk assessment of CSE is the need for disclosure. Ability to disclose information regarding CSE was discussed by both young people and professionals as being easier when a trusting and honest relationship had been built, which takes time, commitment, care and knowledge of CSE (Lefevre et al, 2017). Moreover, Brown’s (2019) study found that socio-economic and gender factors deterred young people from disclosing due to a fear of being further stigmatised and having experienced gendered and oppressive verbal abuse by the police, that is, being called ‘slags’.

Knowledge around CSE was outlined as vital for young people where CSE may be an issue. Berry et al’s (2017) research explored the use of psycho-education sessions with young women at risk of or involved in CSE. These sessions reduced ‘risk taking behaviors’ and showed a ‘positive direction of change’ (Berry et al, 2017: 778, 777). The young people gained knowledge around the impacts of CSE on the self and also discussed knowledgeable practitioners as better at understanding, caring and listening, and able to meet emotional needs (Franklin et al, 2018).

Although neoliberalism was not directly referenced, its impacts were, that is, high caseloads, austerity, reduced services, reduced funding and less time to work with young people (Franklin et al, 2018). The effects of austerity and neoliberal ideology regarding welfare are evident within modern practice used in response to risk and CSE. Franklin et al (2018) found a tension between high caseloads, the immediate risk of abuse and the time needed to build a trusting relationship – a fundamental element to working effectively with those involved in CSE. In response to risk and confined time limits, professionals regularly used secure units and other controlling forms of practice to manage immediate risk of abuse. These were considered quicker options within already under-resourced services, where time to build relationships is limited and undervalued (Coy, 2008; Dodsworth, 2014; Hallett, 2016; Franklin et al, 2018).

Theme 2: agency

Agency was a challenging and difficult theme to navigate within the complex and under-researched area of CSE and LAC (Melrose, 2010). Inconsistency with regards to defining and understanding CSE appears to create difficulties for a unifying concept of how agency might feature. Throughout the literature, ‘agency’ differed depending on the perspective of the researcher and the time and space in which participants disclosed life experiences. The authors have transgressed hegemonic and singular narratives of CSE as an ‘exploitative’ process through ‘grooming and pimping’ in order to explore the wider context (Coy, 2008; Melrose, 2010; Dodsworth, 2014; Hallett, 2016; Berry et al, 2017; Lefevre et al, 2017; Franklin et al, 2018; Brown, 2019). Brown (2019) suggests that rather than avoid the challenging question of agency, practice must address structural factors to make sense of choice within limited options.

It is stated that contextualising the relationship between LAC and CSE is vital if professionals are to meet the needs of this group (Coy, 2008; 2009; Dodsworth, 2014; Hallett, 2016; Brown, 2019). Coy (2008) found that the sexualisation of women as ‘sex objects’ was a theme across the participants of the study, who were all women with experience of Care and CSE. This was reinforced by the attention they received from perpetrators, professionals and society around CSE and sexuality. Experience of sexual abuse, ‘care as control’ and multiple placements created a sense that their bodies no longer belonged to them and therefore the feeling that they had no agency (Coy, 2008; Dodsworth, 2014).

The stigma and othering of Care and CSE created a sense of self that allowed selling sex to be an option that fitted with their self-perception (Coy, 2008; Dodsworth, 2012). Melrose (2010) critically analyses the context of agency within neoliberal economic opportunities, through which it becomes clear that some young people are exercising agency by entering CSE – agency that has been constrained within their socio-economic environments, especially as children in Care and Care leavers. However, the narratives of CSE that position young people only in terms of being vulnerable distract from this. As one participant said: ‘local authority was not prepared to give me money to survive because I was in voluntary care [age 15]…. I had to get money in my own way. So that’s how I got into it [prostitution]’ (Melrose, 2010: 12). This was also expressed by a participant in Brown’s (2019: 630) study, who stated: ‘I didn’t have no money when I was in care; you weren’t allowed it. It was like I might as well do this, and then it got more serious’. Dodsworth (2014) suggests that the ability to plan and reflect on entry into CSE indicates agency. The knowledge of how agency was made sense of by the young people resists some of the hegemonic narratives of vulnerability and powerlessness (Dodsworth, 2014; Brown, 2019).

In Hallett’s (2016) study, ‘Katie’ states that she chose to run away to cope with feelings of ‘insecurity and instability’ that arose from the Care system. She was sexually exploited by a man posing as her boyfriend, stating: ‘he was there for me you know I just wanted someone to love me’ (Hallett, 2016: 2144). However, Brown (2019) suggests that demonisation and marginalisation under neoliberal discourse around those who are a ‘risk’ had a detrimental impact on the self and agency. The women in Brown’s (2019) study stated that they felt oppressed by being a woman, working class and involved in CSE or sex work. A participant in Dodsworth’s (2014: 192) study stated that she was labelled a ‘whore’ and, due to the deep-rooted stigma around this term, continued selling sex, leading her to feel that she had little agency. This highlights the power of stigma and how it shapes choices and agency, at the same time as increasing vulnerability.

Berry et al (2017) highlight how education around the risks and context of CSE empowered young women to make more informed decisions and have more power over their choices through learning about healthy relationships, exploitation and online safety. The study found that the impact of psycho-education was positive and allowed the young person to have more power and agency (Berry et al, 2017). This was achieved by understanding the ways in which exploitation works. Furthermore, Franklin et al (2018) state that a lack of contextual knowledge around CSE within risk assessment frameworks results in the child or young person being misunderstood, and can result in victim blaming, which distracts from considering a more nuanced understanding of agency.

Theme 3: relational practice

The theme of relational practice largely explores the absence of quality caring support. The young people express the detrimental impact of practice and professionals who lack the qualities of relational, child-centred and caring practice. A dominant focus on risk-reducing and safeguarding practice appears to lose the child’s voice in the process and results in the young people going out to look for love themselves (Coy, 2009; Hallett, 2016). The systems of Care were linked to feelings of being ‘unloved, unvalued and abandoned’ (Coy, 2008: 1419). Where practice was relational and meeting the emotional needs of young people, it was discussed as lifesaving and mimicking healthy familial love.

Coy (2008: 1420) states that practice must look beyond the assessment of the risk elements of CSE and assess the young girls and women as ‘whole selves’ in order to respond to their wider needs. The young people in Hallett’s (2016) study illustrate that although measures are put in place to reduce the immediate risk of abuse, these are only temporary fixes, and unless the underlying emotional issues are addressed, the exploitation will start again. Participants in Coy’s (2008: 1412) study stated confusion at ‘being received into care to protect them, yet not being offered any therapeutic support to overcome the damaging effects of abuse or being subject to further abuse once in care’. The lack of therapeutic and specialist services can be understood as a result of neoliberal cuts to funding. For example, when the secure unit placements ended, young people were often left in riskier environments (that is, hostels and women’s ‘safe’ houses) due to limited funding for housing (Coy, 2008).

A participant of Coy’s (2009: 263) study expressed frustration over the lack of care within Care homes, stating: ‘[staff] can show you some love, or caring, instead of this “we’re moving you there” … [like] bags of rubbish nobody wants’. Coy (2008: 1416) found that the experience of Care and processes by which young people are moved around, controlled and rendered ‘invisible’ reflected a ‘troubled sense of ownership over their bodies’ and a difficulty with building relationships. Along with the trauma of sexual and physical abuse, the young people felt disconnected from their bodies and, as a result, emotionally removed from the process of selling access to parts of their bodies. The practice and process of Care made young people feel different and stigmatised as the deviant other (Coy, 2008; Dodsworth, 2012); as a result, they drifted into street subcultures, finding a sense of community among marginalised others.

Entering and living in Care was discussed across multiple studies as a factor that rendered young people more vulnerable (Coy, 2008; 2009; Melrose, 2010; Hallett, 2016). A lack of relational or child-centred practice was seen to further increase risk by exacerbating emotional vulnerability (Dodsworth, 2012; Lefevre et al, 2017). The lack of trusting and caring relationships built between professionals and young people resulted in young people feeling unwanted, invisible and ignored (Coy, 2008; Hallett, 2016; Franklin et al, 2018). The fact that professionals were supposed to protect and care made the Care process more upsetting for young people and provoked a sense of betrayal (Coy, 2008). Relational practice was understood as offering a ‘secure base relationship’ (Dodsworth, 2014: 193), which was seen to undo negative self-perceptions that resulted from a long-standing search for affection, approval and love (Dodsworth, 2012). One young person described her outreach workers as ‘basically like a family’ (Dodsworth, 2014: 194).

Throughout the studies, the young people mentioned such protocols as removing phones, housing in secure units and reducing economic funds, which were experienced as being equally abusive and controlling as the perpetrator’s actions (Coy, 2008; 2009; Hallett, 2016; Franklin et al, 2018; Brown, 2019). As one young person stated: ‘at least I get some form of care with them [perpetrators]’, regardless of whether it was genuine (Coy, 2008: 1417). The experience of professional practice mimicking the abuse of perpetrators was consistent throughout (Coy, 2008; 2009; Melrose, 2010; Dodsworth, 2014; Lefevre et al, 2017; Franklin et al, 2018; Brown, 2019). The young people in Hallett’s (2016) study referred to the professionals and perpetrators as within the same group of adults who controlled them. This was understood as a result of strict child protection measures and a focus on the risk of CSE, which, as a result, distracted from the child’s voice and experience.

Listening carefully, openly and actively to young people was noted as the most important part of practice (Lefevre et al, 2017). Positive and caring relationships were built through practitioners’ ‘use of self’ and unconditional positive regard, which practitioners felt gave the young people a template for what a respectful and caring relationship felt like. Caring and genuine relationships built young people’s confidence, resilience and self-esteem (Lefevre et al, 2017). Professionals, such as CSE specialists, therapists, educational services and social care workers, were identified as key to helping young people identify, exit and move on from CSE (Brown, 2019). When receiving effective and quality professional support, the young people said that they felt safe and had improved self-worth and a sense of agency over their life (Dodsworth, 2014; Brown, 2019). This is reflected in Brown’s (2019: 632) study, where a young person stated that ‘Care saved my life’.

Discussion

The significance of ‘love’ in relation to the link between LAC and CSE in a social work context within the reviewed literature is evident in all the themes identified in the analysis. However, its presence is largely apparent in relation to the absence of love within the Care system and through the efforts that the young people undertake to meet this need outside that system. In the theme of risk, it is present in relation to how the importance of care can be lost when the dominant focus is on risk and safeguarding. In the theme of agency, it emerged both through the use of CSE by LAC as an active means for meeting emotional and economic needs that the Care system did not meet, and in relation to how dominant patriarchal discourses of gender and the sexualisation and objectification of women profoundly impacted on the sense of self of LAC and undermined their sense of agency. Finally, in the theme of relational practice, it is apparent in the experience of young people as feeling failed by professionals within the field of Care and CSE in respect of being provided with effective emotional support. Indeed, Jacono (1993) suggests that due to a lack of societal comprehension and uneasiness around love, the terms ‘care’ and ‘relational’ become a euphemism for ‘love’, and these alternative terms are seen to dilute the emotional meanings attributed. The importance of love for young people is undeniable (Neumann, 2016), especially those who have experienced family breakdown and live in Care. The need for love is not lost once removed from a family (Lausten and Frederiksen, 2016); in fact, it invariably becomes more important.

The modernisation of social work practice to an evidence-based profession helps explain why and how love is absent from social work policy and practice. Evidence-based practice can be understood to privilege measurable and unified frameworks for practice at the expense of emotions and critical thinking, resulting in the ‘rationality of care’ (Wærness, 1992; Otto et al, 2009; Morley, 2016). The rationalisation of emotions within social work and devaluing of professional judgement is concerning when considering the importance of ‘self-understanding’ and emotion when engaging with others (Turney and Ruch, 2016). Without a developed sense of ‘self’, professionals may have lacked the emotional and reflective skills to recognise and mentalise the unmet emotional needs in the young people.

To further explore how Care systems exacerbate the risk of CSE, the legislation and policy that shape practice need to be considered. The ‘Working together to safeguard children’ (Department for Education, 2018) guidance states that practitioners should work in a child-centred way that puts the children’s needs first. Within this guidance, the risk of exploitation, in all forms, is linked only to past trauma ‘from within their family and from individuals they come across in their day-to-day lives’ (Department for Education, 2018: 9), not to the systems of Care themselves. A section on what children need from professionals lists ‘vigilance’, ‘understanding and action’, ‘stability’, ‘respect’, ‘information’, ‘explanation’, ‘support’, ‘advocacy’ and ‘protection’ (Department for Education, 2018: 10). There is no mention of meeting emotional or economic needs, nor is there any mention of care or love, which the young people in this literature review outline as a fundamental requirement from professionals.

The ‘love ethic’ of hooks (2001) provides a useful entry point for exploring how love as action can meet the emotional and economic needs of children and young people by considering the identified themes of risk, agency and relational practice. The ‘love ethic’ explores how love as action, underpinned by a black feminist love-politics (Nash, 2013), can impact at an emotional level by providing social work with a framework for trust, care, respect, commitment, knowledge and responsibility. In addition to this, the ‘love ethic’ is understood as impacting at a structural level and as challenging the powers that oppress and marginalise (Godden, 2017), seeking to undo the negative impacts of individualism, demonisation and segregation (hooks, 2001). The ‘love ethic’ encourages critical and contextual thinking around the issues raised in the review, and offers a framework that would be able to address them.

The difficulty for love to exist within an oppressive, neoliberal, capitalist, racist and patriarchal society is explored by hooks. Understanding these structures as abusive, hooks (2001) states that ‘love does not coexist with abuse’, and this extends into our relationships, including family, peer and romantic. After identifying a lack of healthy love, both by experience and through the stories, images and narratives seen in the media, hooks identified a framework for love through the ‘love ethic’.

When love as action is utilised by the individual and through communities, it meets the emotional needs of individuals and names the abusive systems and behaviours that exist around us. With a clear understanding of healthy relational love, the ‘love ethic’ could support children, young people and adults who have not experienced healthy love, with a framework for understanding how love should function. This could support people with lived experience of Care to build and maintain healthy relationships, as well as inform Care leavers who have their own children and may struggle to provide healthy love without experiencing it themselves. On a structural level, hooks states that the ‘love ethic’ would address issues of oppression and inequality by consciously considering how the six actions of love provide a space in which oppressive discourses would struggle to function and maintain power. Furthermore, the ‘love ethic’ does not require an emotional connection, making it a useful tool within social work practice.

Recommendations for social work practice

The recommendations from this review are that: (1) social work practice can utilise love through the use of the ‘love ethic’ (hooks, 2001) to better meet the emotional and economic needs of LAC in order to reduce entry into CSE and to support those already involved; (2) practice within the field of CSE and LAC needs to be proactive in using critical thinking and reflection, as well as to enable professionals to resist and question the neoliberal, patriarchal and capitalist systems that are shaping modern social work practice; (3) further research is needed with regards to this proposal in order to explore other ways in which LAC involved with CSE feel about love in social work practice and other ways in which emotional needs are met other than CSE; (4) the ‘love ethic’ can be included in social work practice through a relational and reflexive framework that resists a ‘tick box’ culture; and (5) that intersections of identity impact on the CSE of LAC, that is, race, gender, ethnicity, age, religion, sexuality and disability. Moreover, while this review does not offer an exploration into why there is little research in the field of LAC and CSE, it does acknowledge that this is a position that needs readdressing.

In order to utilise the ‘love ethic’, critical thinking and reflection is vital to allow practitioners to develop a better understanding of ‘self’ and, in turn, their own emotions. This is vital for practice when working with LAC involved with CSE, as the relationship between them pivots on emotional needs and practitioners being able to mentalise, recognise and meet these emotional needs. This review identifies that these vital and complex relational skills need more attention in practice, while recognising the restraints on practitioners who battle with high caseloads, minimal funding and limited access to resources and time within an underfunded sector, as referenced in the review of literature.

Neoliberal attempts to rationalise emotion within modern social work and the application of heavily risk-focused frameworks for safeguarding must be challenged and critically analysed by social workers. Research suggests that neoliberalism devalues critical thought in social work in order to enforce an oppressive ideology with little opposition (Moss and Petrie, 2002; Morley, 2016). Critical thinking and reflection were found to strengthen political identities in social workers (Morley, 2016). Therefore, a need is identified for social workers to develop the area of critical thinking and reflection in practice in order to resist neoliberalism and fight for better working environments (in terms of lower caseloads and more resources) that allow practitioners to better meet the needs of the individuals they work with and promote genuine social justice. Through developing the use of critical reflection and thinking, space can be made to acknowledge the forms of abuse and oppression that exist, and the ‘love ethic’ can be used to resist these structures/relationships and create a blueprint for healthy love, while allowing practitioners to identify and meet unmet emotional and economic needs.

Conclusion

This literature review considers bell hooks’ (2001) black feminist love-politics, that is, the ‘love ethic’, as a transformative framework of ‘love as action’ to meet the unmet emotional and economic needs of LAC who are involved in, at risk of or have lived experience of CSE. At the same time, the ‘love ethic’ resists the ‘ethics of domination’ that creates the preconditions for LAC and CSE, such as neoliberalism, racism, patriarchy and capitalism (hooks, 2001). It is clear from this literature review that love is significant in addressing the often unmet emotional and economic needs of young people in Care involved in CSE. Through a clear model, the ‘love ethic’ can meet emotional needs and set out a healthy framework for all types of relationship, something that is noted as lacking for children within the Care system (Stein, 2008). Systems of Care are understood throughout as increasing the risk of CSE due to a lack of relational practice, which exacerbates unmet emotional need through the use of controlling risk-centred safeguarding and decontextualised understandings of agency. Neoliberal political measures were found to limit relational practice through austerity measures, to create economic conditions that allow CSE to be a choice within extremely limited options (Melrose, 2010) and to maintain patriarchal systems that make young women feel marginalised, sexualised and objectified. This review recommends the use of hooks’ (2001) ‘love ethic’, critical thinking and critical reflection as vital tools to aid radical social work practice in challenging the current oppressive neoliberal agenda and to meet the unmet needs of children in Care. As Lorde (1984: 110) states, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

Note

1

See Section 22 of the Children Act 1989. Available at: www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1989/41/section/22

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank: Tina Herbert, my mum, for her unconditional, powerful and enduring love; Callum Plowright, Richard Plowright, Nancy Barnes and Rachael Payne for their consistent support, the laughter and the space to talk; and Jameel Hadi and Dr Suryia Nayak from The University of Salford for outstanding teaching and for giving the gift of critical thought.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ansbro, M. (2014) The independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, 1997−2013, Probation Journal, 61(4): 42932. doi: 10.1177/0264550514561361

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Attride-Stirling, J. (2001) Thematic networks: an analytic tool for qualitative research, Qualitative Research, 1(3): 385405. doi: 10.1177/146879410100100307

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Berry, L., Tully, R. and Egan, V. (2017) A case study approach to reducing the risks of child sexual exploitation (CSE), Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 26(7): 76984. doi: 10.1080/10538712.2017.1360428

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge Studies in Social Anthropology 16), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Brown, K. (2019) Vulnerability and child sexual exploitation: towards an approach grounded in life experiences, Critical Social Policy, 39(4): 62242. doi: 10.1177/0261018318824480

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Coy, M. (2008) Young women, local authority care and selling sex: findings from research, British Journal of Social Work, 38(7): 140824. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcm049

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Coy, M. (2009) ‘Moved around like bags of rubbish nobody wants’: how multiple placement moves can make young women vulnerable to sexual exploitation, Child Abuse Review, 18(4): 25466. doi: 10.1002/car.1064

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Crenshaw, K. (1991) Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color, Stanford Law Review, 43(6): 1241. doi: 10.2307/1229039

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Department for Education (2017) Child sexual Exploitation, Definition and a Guide for Practitioners, Local Leaders and Decision Makers Working to Protect Children from Child Sexual Exploitation, London: The National Archive.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Department for Education (2018) Working together to safeguard children, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/942454/Working_together_to_safeguard_children_inter_agency_guidance.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Department of Health (2000) Safeguarding Children Involved in Prostitution, London: The National Archive.

  • Dodsworth, J. (2012) Pathways through sex work: childhood experiences and adult identities, British Journal of Social Work, 42(3): 51936. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcr077

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dodsworth, J. (2014) Sexual exploitation, selling and swapping sex: victimhood and agency, Child Abuse Review, 23(3): 18599. doi: 10.1002/car.2282

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Franklin, A., Brown, S. and Brady, G. (2018) The use of tools and checklists to assess the risk of child sexual exploitation: lessons from UK practice, Journal of Child Sexual Abuse: Special Issue on Risk Assessment of Sexually Abusive Youth, 27(8): 97897.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Godden, N. (2017) The love ethic: a radical theory for social work practice, Australian Social Work, 70(4): 40516. doi: 10.1080/0312407X.2017.1301506

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hallett, S. (2016) ‘An uncomfortable comfortableness’: ‘care’, child protection and child sexual exploitation, British Journal of Social Work, 46(7): 213752. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcv136

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • hooks, b. (2001) All about Love: New Visions, New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

  • Jacono, B. (1993) Caring is loving, Journal of Advanced Nursing, 18: 1924. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2648.1993.18020192.x

  • Kiteley, R. and Stogdon, C. (2014) Literature Reviews in Social Work, London: SAGE Publications.

  • Lausten, M. and Frederiksen, S. (2016) Do you love me? An empirical analysis of the feeling of love amongst children in out-of-home care, International Journal of Social Pedagogy, 5(1): 90103.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lefevre, M., Hickle, K., Luckock, B. and Ruch, G. (2017) Building trust with children and young people at risk of child sexual exploitation: the professional challenge, British Journal of Social Work, 47(8): 245673. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcw181

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lorde, A. (1984) Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press.

  • Melrose, M. (2010) What’s love got to do with it? Theorising young people’s involvement in prostitution, Youth and Policy, 104: 1231.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Morley, C. (2016) Promoting activism through critical social work education: the impact of global capitalism and neoliberalism on social work and social work education, Critical and Radical Social Work, 4(1): 3957. doi: 10.1332/204986016X14519919041398

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Moss, P. and Petrie, P. (2002) From Children’s Services to Children’s Spaces: Public Policy, Children and Childhood, London: Routledge Falmer.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nash, J. (2013) Practicing love: black feminism, love-politics, and post intersectionality, Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, 11(2): 124.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Neumann, C.B. (2016) Children’s quest for love and professional child protection work: the case of Norway, International Journal of Social Pedagogy, 5(1): 10423.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nowell, L., Norris, J., White, D. and Moules, N. (2017) Thematic analysis: striving to meet the trustworthiness criteria, International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 16(1–13). doi: 10.1177/1609406917733847

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Otto, H., Polutta, A. and Ziegler, H. (2009) Reflexive professionalism as a second generation of evidence-based practice: some considerations on the special issue ‘What works? Modernizing the knowledge-base of social work’, Research on Social Work Practice, 19(4): 4728. doi: 10.1177/1049731509333200

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Stein, M. (2008) Resilience and young people leaving care, Child Care in Practice: Building Resilience in Children, Families and Communities, 14(1): 3544.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Turney, D. and Ruch, G. (2016) Thinking about thinking after Munro: the contribution of cognitive interviewing to child-care social work supervision and decision-making practices, The British Journal of Social Work, 46(3): 66985. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcv001

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wærness, K. (1992) On the rationality of caring, in A.S. Sassoon (ed) Women and the State, London: Routledge, pp 20734.

  • Warrington, C. (2010) From less harm to more good: the role of children and young people’s participation in relation to sexual exploitation, Youth and Policy, 104: 6279.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 1 The University of Salford, UK

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