Child Sexual Exploitation risk assessment scaled e1584449660377 1

CESIUM: Innovation in child safeguarding – An interdisciplinary journey

Child exploitation (CE) is a complex societal problem – there are many moving parts, many points of failure, and many vulnerabilities. Child exploitation includes, but is not limited to, child labour, forced begging, engagement in criminal activities and child prostitution and is often visible in cases of gang membership, “county lines” exploitation, human trafficking and online sexual exploitation.

The underlying social problems that make children vulnerable to CE are multiple and large-scale. Gang-associated CE is linked with substance misuse, mental health difficulties, parental substance misuse, neglect, housing and school instability, going missing, and self-harm. In relation to the scale, the UK Department for Education reported 389,260 children in need as of 31 March 2020 [1] and research estimates that 27,000 children in England alone identify as gang members [2]. Compounding this complexity are indications that pandemic-related lockdowns during 2020/2021, and associated school closures, have led to a loss of opportunities to detect early warning signals for all different types of exploitation [3].

Professionals are already aware that to address complex problems like CE, an entire ecosystem is needed to support children and their parents/families: teachers, children’s services, health services, policymakers, law enforcement, and civil society actors at the local and national levels. However, for each exploited child, there is an equally complex story, or even several stories belonging to different people, that illustrate missed opportunities to recognise vulnerabilities and secure protection of the vulnerable.

All the individuals, societal safety nets, education-based systems, and healthcare infrastructures that are designed to keep children safe ultimately did not hold. In some cases, this is because each aspect of this ecosystem operated independently rather than holistically.  While there are abundant systems, processes, and success stories within these safeguarding organisations, there are many restrictions as well. These can range from organisational and budgetary constraints to data silos, to regulatory restrictions, all of which impede the ability to provide a child-centered, comprehensive, holistic, and robust data-driven analysis.

To overcome this, the CESIUM application is aimed at supporting multi-agency, data-driven analyses in a highly secured manner, and with a lens on the handling of data guided by data protection and data ethics. The application’s outputs and results inform the professional judgment of safeguarding professionals, providing algorithmic transparency and further mitigating automation bias through AI explainability (the ability of the system to explain its rationale, strengths, weaknesses, and convey future behaviour), while always keeping the human-in-the-loop. The application was designed to maintain integrity, inspire trust, and enable the broader circle of multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) partners in ways relevant to their safeguarding goals of protecting children. CESIUM does not replace the professional’s responsibility to make an informed decision, rather, it ensures that safeguarding professionals have all the relevant information possible to allow them to make the best use of their professional judgment.

Our methodology for developing the CESIUM application has mirrored both the size and complexity of the problem and aimed to create a system that is fit-for-purpose. We embarked on an interdisciplinary journey to co-design the application by combining our ecosystem of experts with the professionals responsible for putting the solutions into practice. Our interdisciplinary journey has included social scientists, data scientists, engineers, domain experts in CE, sectoral experts in policing, legal and human rights experts, along with experts in data security, data protection, and data ethics.

Our co-design process was brought to life by our collaboration with our partners, Lincolnshire Police and NWG Exploitation Response Unit, both of whom were in search of a solution that included ethics-by-design. We are committed and proud to continue to work with them to impact safeguarding professionals’ practices positively.

The CESIUM application is unique in that it takes the complexity of the ecosystem, and the ethical issues associated with data-driven analyses, into account to have a real impact on the lives of vulnerable children in our society. By facilitating the early identification of vulnerabilities and by strengthening partnership working, CESIUM will be a centerpiece of a digital infrastructure that can support the effort to combat and prevent harm for children and young people.

References:

[1] Department for Education statistics in relation to child in need and child protection referrals

[2] Children’s Commisioner Anne Longfield – ‘Keeping kids safe Improving safeguarding responses to gang violence and criminal exploitation’ FEBRUARY 2019

[3] Children’s Commissioner – Dame Rachel de Souza’s report ‘We’re all in this together?’ Local area profiles of child vulnerability- April 2020

Kush Wadhwa

Kush Wadhwa is Chief Executive Officer at Trilateral Research.

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