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Blogs and Opinion Supporting child trafficking survivors as they transition to adulthood in the UK

Supporting child trafficking survivors as they transition to adulthood in the UK

Two years ago, Hope for Justice created a new role in our UK team: Child Trafficking Transition Specialist. The role was an attempt to meet a crucial need among young survivors of human trafficking, for whom turning 18 marks a moment when a lot of statutory support can otherwise fall away. Today we catch up with Elle Williams to talk about her vital work and recent trends, such as an increase in ‘county lines’ cases.

Hope for Justice’s team of Independent Modern Slavery Advocates (IMSAs) provide independent socio-legal advocacy that ensures survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking can make informed choices about their entitlements and recovery. IMSAs provide advocacy that is person-led and trauma-informed, because many survivors have complex advocacy needs. This service is not time-limited. The IMSAs also run an Advice Service accessible by individual survivors and/or professionals working with survivors.

Our Child Trafficking Transition Specialist (CTTS), Elle Williams, pictured, performs this IMSA role in a way which is tailored specifically to young survivors of trafficking in the years after they turn 18, with special regard for their particular needs.

Our key partner in this work is children’s charity Barnardo’s, which is commissioned by the Government to operate the Independent Child Trafficking Guardianship (ICTG) Service in certain regions across England and Wales. This work is about building trusting relationships with trafficked children to help them build a positive future; helping them navigate the criminal justice, immigration, and social care systems; giving practical support, such as help with housing, medical needs, and education; giving emotional and psychological support; and training professionals working with children so they can spot the signs of trafficking and know how to support trafficked children.

When a young person is referred to Hope for Justice, we work together with Barnado’s before their 18th birthday to ensure there is a comprehensive and safe handover of support when the times comes, with space to build the relationship and grow trust.

It is a crucial period, because otherwise when state-funded support runs out, young people can be at higher risk of dropping out of the support systems and even being re-trafficked. This cliff-edge was recognised by the Government, and in response to a recommendation in the Independent Review of the Modern Slavery Act, it is piloting an extension of ICTG services for young people aged between 18 and 25 “if their needs or circumstances require it” in certain areas of England (Greater London, West Yorkshire, Warwickshire, Birmingham, Coventry, North Yorkshire, and Merseyside). There are existing special arrangements for survivors who are also care leavers (young people aged over 16 when they left local authority care) aged between 18 and 25.

Emma Hawley, Assistant Director of Children’s Services for Barnardo’s National Counter Trafficking Centre, said: “At Barnardo’s, we know how vital it is to help, support and protect child victims of trafficking to help them manage the long-term impact this is likely to have on their lives. We use our expertise to help young victims manage their trauma and overcome issues such as isolation, poor wellbeing and a lack of understanding of rights and entitlements to reduce the risk of further exploitation. The need for this support doesn’t stop when that child turns 18 but it continues and develops as they transition further into adulthood. By working alongside organisations such as Hope for Justice, we can ensure that not only are children continuously supported but that they are prepared to face any challenges and enjoy the positive opportunities which lay ahead for them.”

New referral pathways

Elle says that a number of other service providers have become aware of Hope for Justice’s specialist knowledge over the last two years and have been referring cases, including police and probation officers, and social workers.

She said: “The referrers tend to see us as specialists in terms of modern slavery and in terms of understanding how the criminal justice system can affect a young person who has experienced trafficking. We provide that added support by being a point of contact for the referrer who thoroughly understands the issues, and who can be a single point of contact for the young person. I can be responsible for reaching out to all of those other professionals and then feed that back to the young person in a way that they understand and that doesn’t seem scary or intense.

“The main referrer is still Barnardo’s, and we do have a really great working relationship with them. With the newer referral partners like probation services, we’re certainly seeing more county lines cases, and cases of young people who are British nationals, rather than unaccompanied asylum seeking children. To see other professionals without any kind of connection to Hope for Justice who find us and then refer to us has been fantastic, and we are keen to get more referral partnerships going.”

Elle’s work was featured in The Times after Sir Mo Farah’s revelation that he was trafficked to the UK

Complex county lines cases

Elle has taken on three survivors of county lines trafficking since the beginning of 2023. “The cases are very, very difficult,” she says. “And for some of the other professionals working with these young people who have just turned 18, there doesn’t always seem to be the understanding that this crime is a form of modern slavery. We at Hope for Justice would very much put it in that category, but to a lot of other professionals outside of our sector, it’s seen instead only as a criminal issue.

“Even among those supporting the young person, they will be seen primarily as a perpetrator, not a survivor. If we start working even more closely with probation services, I expect we will be seeing many more referrals of similar cases – the need is definitely out there.”

Elle and other members of the Advocacy team at Hope for Justice have also done some training with ICTGs to outline the approach we take with young people going through the National Referral Mechanism and living in safe houses. “It’s a partnership,” Elle says. “We’re sharing knowledge with each other and we’re sharing cases.”

Consequences of negative decisions

Elle said that the consequences of legislation passed in 2022 and 2023 is that the young people she works with have been directly affected. “Since those Acts came into force, we are seeing more negative CGs [‘conclusive grounds’ decisions, where a specialised team within the Home Office decides, on the balance of probabilities, whether they believe someone is or is not a victim of trafficking or modern slavery]. I’m working with young people who have had negative CGs and negative asylum decisions, even with quite a lot of evidence, which is quite worrying because when they’re young they are more at risk.”

A negative decision results in access to support and access to a safe house being withdrawn after nine days of ‘move-on support’, though extensions can be requested if the person needs more time to become self-supporting. Reconsiderations are possible whether there is additional evidence, or where the decision seems to contradict published guidance.

Elle said: “We do appeal those negative decisions if they happen, and we try to uplift the survivor as much as possible and keep that positivity. Because a young person sometimes tries to rationalise that decision and unfortunately their thought process can be very much like ‘this country hates me, what have I done wrong?’ It’s really hard to have those conversations with 18 year olds about why people are looking at them differently or why they feel that the government doesn’t want to help them.

“We are definitely aware that it’s going to get harder and this will happen more and more often – negative decisions for young people even with lots of evidence about their trafficking experience. And this is just the start.”

Depending on the circumstances, a negative decision might mean a person having to go to emergency hostel-style asylum accommodation, which is not a good environment for a young person, and losing the support of other professionals.

Section 45 – The Modern Slavery Defence

Elle gave the example of one young person she is currently supporting, who is facing a court date related to a crime he was forced to commit while in exploitation. “If they remove the support he’s currently getting while he’s still going through the criminal justice system, it’s going to leave him quite isolated – I think it would literally be just me supporting him.

“We would definitely love to see other professionals learning more about the ‘modern slavery defence’ and using it in a better way,” she added.

This defence was brought into law under section 45 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, and essentially allows people accused of many offences – except the most serious crimes – to have a defence in court if they can show that they only committed that offence as a direct consequence of being or having been a victim of modern slavery or human trafficking (other criteria must also be met as outlined here). The Crown Prosecution Service also has guidelines to ‘review’ whether a prosecution should proceed in the first place if a person has been found to be a victim of modern slavery through the National Referral Mechanism.

However, a court ruling in 2021 made the section 45 defence a lot more difficult to use, especially for young people, because decisions made via the National Referral Mechanism process are no longer admissible as evidence in court that a person is a victim.


Elle praised those who work at safe houses where young survivors she is supporting are living. “They make a real effort to understand and support the specific needs of the younger people and put in the work to help them,” she said.

Hope for Justice considers the role of Child Trafficking Transition Specialist to have been a success and to have made a real difference, with a growing number of young people having been referred and having benefitted from the tailored service. At such a crucial period in their lives, it is incredibly important that they have an advocate, trauma-informed support and practical help, whether or not they are also receiving state-funded support or safe housing.

Elle said: “We also help with things like access to education, language skills, and connecting them with other organisations and simple things like hobbies and engaging things for them to do. We do everything possible to ensure the young person feels heard, feels supported and feels safe, and that their rights and entitlements are respected.”

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