An approach of love – the antidote to criminal exploitation

I am a single parent to a number of children and I work professionally in a role of safeguarding children and young people. When I realised that it was happening under my roof, that my son was being criminally exploited, I felt so many emotions – disbelief, guilt, shame; my pride in myself was shattered.

My son had always been so confident in himself and making his own decisions.

He was such a natural leader that I didn’t consider that he, like all children, would be vulnerable to this crime.

Initially I held him responsible. I was absolutely furious that he had veered from his own deep sense of morality. I blamed him. He had always taken care of himself, undertaken household responsibilities and been such an affectionate and loving child. He stopped washing himself, his room was a total mess, he was out most of the time and when he did return home he went straight to his room and wouldn’t verbally communicate with me or would be defensive and aggressive.

I felt as if I’d lost him completely and that he just wasn’t the son I loved anymore.

I’d always been a private person. I felt as if I could manage anything when it came to my children, but I was desperate and felt like I had to bring my walls down because I couldn’t manage it alone. I was feeling so helpless because nothing I was doing was working and I thought, ‘what’s the point?’

When I turned to family and friends, they just wanted to give unhelpful advice. They told me to kick my son out of our home, for the sake of myself and his siblings. It just left me feeling judged and isolated. I pulled away from them all, because they didn’t understand.

My pace worker understood my love as a mother and the power of it. She helped me to understand the controls and pressures on my child. I realised that him exercising ‘choice’ was no choice, but his best attempt to survive in the complex and harsh world of organised crime. I was able to not take his actions personally, but view his behaviours as a result of his distress and coercion. She helped me to remember my child and how he was a scared, confused and lost little boy. She supported me in thinking about what he really needed from me.

My approach to my son changed. In the warring landscape of child criminal exploitation I was holding ground by letting him know how much he was loved. I was overly-loving and I made it clear he couldn’t reject me.

I let him know that whilst I couldn’t accept what he was involved in, I would always be there for him.

I was trying to hold onto him- keeping some kind of relationship when he was cutting off and closing up. It had such a positive impact.

The breakthrough in keeping our connection started with texts. Our communication had broken down and he was avoiding me and any conversations. I told him in message after message how much I loved him. I think it made him happy, I think he needed to hear it. He started to be home more; I’d get glimpses of the son I knew. I’d plant little seeds, saying I’d always love him and accept him, but his associations were not acceptable.

I started to hug him. Initially he shook me off, but I kept going until he started hugging me back and holding on tight.

I tried to understand him. I adopted a playful, almost light-hearted approach, to put him at ease and I’d try and bring in conversations without too much pressure – discussions about mental health or cannabis use and how it could encourage paranoia. He started to show interest, ask questions and open up. I had to be persistent and patient. His clothing and dress, which had been about hiding his identity, started to change. He got back the relationship with his sibling. He started pulling away from the group and talking about his future, about getting a job.

I don’t know if my son fully recognises that he was the victim of criminal exploitation or how coercive control was used to manipulate him, but he has pulled away from the gang and is trying to come home. I am monitoring him now, through social media and other areas, without him realising it. He has social anxiety and fear about situations he never had before he was criminally exploited.

We will get through this together, because he is my son, I love him, and he is my whole world.