Digital service for young people at risk of exploitation launches across Bedfordshire
Main article content
Following a successful pilot and official roll-out into 3 local authorities, the charities Missing People and Childline (NSPCC) are expanding ‘Is This OK?’, a ground-breaking, free and anonymous Chatbot for children and young people at risk of, or currently experiencing, sexual or criminal exploitation and/or abuse, into the Bedfordshire county.
Is This OK? is supported by Dame Esther Rantzen and Anne Longfield CBE, the former Children’s Commissioner for England, with technical expertise from Reason Digital and has been made possible thanks to funding from BBC Children in Need, the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists' (WCIT) Charity and with support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery.
The service is led by Sara Rowbotham, the frontline sexual health worker who led the NHS crisis team in uncovering widespread child sexual exploitation in Rochdale. She was recently recognised in the Queen’s birthday honours list and awarded an MBE.
Sara Rowbotham MBE, Head of Is This OK?: “Is This OK? provides an essential lifeline for young people who may be concerned about the consequences of speaking out. We want to help them explore those concerns in a safe space and will work with them to come up with their own solutions. Only when young people feel they have more control and are supported with the skills, knowledge and attitude to make positive changes can they move away from a dangerous situation. There is no quick fix and often their experiences and situations are complex but connecting with ‘this is ok’ will be a crucial first step.”
Is This OK? empowers young people to seek support, who may not otherwise seek help due to worries about disclosing problems. Advice is available online and via a Chatbot. Young people can then have a Live Chat with trained professionals. Is This OK? also signposts to local support services.
Young people, including those with lived experience of exploitation, have helped shape the service. During consultation they spoke of the importance of the service being both confidential and anonymous. They contributed to the design of the chat-bot, the website and new marketing materials aimed at those who are at risk or currently experiencing exploitation or harm.
During the initial pilot in Waltham Forest and Bradford, over the course of six months, the Chatbot was accessed 1,746 times and as a result 344 live chats were initiated by young people.
Findings from the pilot indicate the importance of ‘Is This OK?’ to vulnerable young people:
77% of young people reported feeling either scared, bad or angry.
Almost half (47%) of young people engaging in a live chat reported they were currently experiencing issues relating to coercive control, sexual or physical violence.
43% of live chat users reported that they had either run away or considering doing so.
Jo Youle, CEO at Missing People said, “Missing People is proud to be leading on the development of this ground-breaking project which connects young people with skilled professionals – safely and in total confidence. Is This OK? provides an accessible and much needed form of digital support for young people who may feel they have nowhere else to turn. Working in partnership with Childline means that we are able to share expertise to deliver the best possible service for young people.”
Lisa Robinson, Bedfordshire’s Violence and Exploitation Reduction Unit Manager and Bedfordshire Exploitation Lead said, “Bedfordshire is delighted to be working in partnership with the ‘Is This OK?’ initiative. This digital service connects children and young people to a confidential space so they can speak with trained professionals. Safeguarding children from exploitation and all forms of abuse is a top priority for our partnership across Bedfordshire, and this service will empower young people to seek support if they have concerns about exploitation. This will be another tool to utilise and ensure we provide accessible support for all children and young people.”
Police and Crime Commissioner, Festus Akinbusoye, said “We know that more and more young people are at risk of experiencing, sexual or criminal exploitation and/or abuse, in Bedfordshire. It is so important to give children and young people a safe space to speak out and seek confidential help if they are concerned. ‘Is this OK?’ provides a vital space for young people to reach out anonymously to get the support they need and I can’t wait to see this role out across Bedfordshire to help support those who need it. No young person should ever have to live with abuse.”
Cllr Tahmina Saleem, Portfolio Holder for Children’s Services at Luton Council, said: “We are pleased to support this initiative which gives our children and young people another channel where they can be listened to, and raise any concerns they may have at a time when they are feeling the most vulnerable.”
Cllr James Valentine, Portfolio Holder for Children’s Services at Bedford Borough Council added, “Keeping children and young people safe is an absolute priority for Bedford Borough Council. The Is This Ok? project will enable children and young people to link in, confidentially and securely, direct to professionals and get the support and guidance they need. I’m delighted it will be available in Bedford Borough.”
The service is currently available in Waltham Forest, Bradford, Stoke-on-Trent, Suffolk and most recently Bedfordshire, and will be scaled up over the next six months to new areas across the UK, with a view to becoming a national service.