Jessica is 17 years old and has been supported by one of Barnardo’s sexual exploitation projects for 2 years. She was just 14 when she became involved with an older group of children, who introduced her to drugs. 

‘My mum wasn’t around, my dad was drinking and spent most of his time internet dating and my sister had left home. I got involved with a group of friends outsideschool – they were older – who were drinking and there were drugs’ says Jessica.

‘I was already drinking when I met them, but I’d never touched drugs before. There was a lot of peer pressure to get involved. At first it was okay – I could get the money from my dad. But after a couple of weeks, I was getting hooked and there wasn’t enough money.

‘My new mates said that it was fine and introduced me to a new boy in the group. They said he fancied me, they said that I should go out with him. I didn’t realise what was happening – I was being set up. After I had slept with him – I realised that I’d been used but it was too late. I ended up hooked on drugs. The need and the want became more and more. Next thing was, he made me sleep with one of his friends to clear a drugs debt. That was only the start of it.’

When Jessica was just turning 15 the ‘risk’ signs were already there. She had family problems, was using alcohol and drugs and was staying out at night.

‘I had so many problems. I really needed my mum but she’d gone off with another bloke. Dad didn’t care and my sister had gone off and was hardly ever in touch. The drugs seemed like my only escape because I had no one. No one seemed to care for me or be looking out for me. Yes, the situation was frightening – but I didn’t know how I could change things’ says Jessica.

At that point a Barnardo’s worker paid a visit to Jessica’s school. She was chosen as part of the group to do a project about the dangers of abusive relationships, how young people could be groomed and the signs to watch out for. The education worker also gave a presentation about the help Barnardo’s could offer. Unbeknown to her, Jessica had been identified at school as being a girl ‘at risk’ of being sexually exploited. No one knew that it had already started.

‘My situation had got more and more frightening – then one night I was raped at a party because I said no to someone my so called boyfriend had set me up with, as a “favour”. I didn’t know what to do – I was desperate and had nowhere to go. I couldn’t go home, I couldn’t tell my friends. It was really scary – but I knew I had to do something and I went to the Barnardo’s project the education worker had come from’ Jessica says.

‘Luckily there was someone working late and they helped me. I knew that I didn’t want to live like this anymore. Even then – I knew that the drugs and abuse wasn’t my destiny. So I changed it – with the project’s help.’

Two years on, Barnardo’s have helped Jessica get a place at college, gain qualifications and find her own place to live. The days of drugs and abuse are firmly in the past and she has made her “escape” thanks to a lot of determination and the support of the project.

She says, ‘They pick on vulnerable, lonely girls like me. They can almost sniff out

the needy, lost girls. The girls looking for love, who crave affection and who are desperate to belong to something, anything. Those words “child sexual exploitation” they make me shudder, make my skin crawl. I know that’s what happened to me and there was no way I could recognise it at the time, I was so young and vulnerable.

And what was worse…there was no way I could have stopped it on my own, without help and without knowing Barnardo’s was there for girls just like me.’