Zoe was known to social work services all of her life and started having a drink problem when she was just 11-years-old. Growing up against a chaotic background where her mother was an alcoholic and in violent relationships. Zoe used alcohol to block out the world. Before long she began running away from home – at the time not realising the danger.

‘No one really cared about me; I don’t think they noticed if I didn’t come home. I didn’t like it when mum’s “boyfriend‟ was around, I suppose I got scared. So I started going missing for a few nights – I was 11. Then I met this boy, he was 17 and really paid me a lot of attention. He let me stay in his house and I thought he loved me. Then he forced me to have sex, I didn’t want this to happen, I said no,” says Zoe. 

Zoe’s drink problems accelerated and her “boyfriend” introduced her to drugs. Before long she had stopped attending school and was self-harming by cutting herself. Eventually Zoe was placed in secure accommodation – but it was only a temporary measure. The “missing” episodes continued and when Zoe was 14 a friend introduced her to yet another older man, he was 35-years-old and quickly realised the youngster’s vulnerability. 

‘He’d pick me up and take me to loads of different places to meet his friends. Sometimes we’d go with other girls. At first it was all right’ Zoe adds. 

Although she didn’t know it, Zoe was being groomed. After three months her new “boyfriend” started getting violent, he’d punch and kick her. Then he’d demand sex and didn’t appear to care that he hurt her. Zoe couldn’t make him stop. Then one day she was taken to one of the “regular flats” and he told her to have sex with his friends. Isolated and frightened Zoe said “no way”, but when her “boyfriend” threatened to beat her, she was forced to do as she’d been told. This was how the pattern of sexual exploitation started. It happened more and more, different towns, different flats. Often she was not alone, other girls were being “used‟ too. 

But Zoe’s behaviour and constant missing episodes had raised concerns with social services and at this point Barnardo’s became involved. Within three months her missing episodes had dropped from several episodes every week, to one or two per month. Gradually she came to realise that she was not to “blame” for her own abuse, there had been a complex process of grooming and sexual exploitation. Today Zoe is back in education. She’s stopped running away, self-harming and has set herself “life goals”. For many these would seem small steps, but for Zoe her life has been completely turned around. Today Zoe has just passed her Maths and English exams and has applied for a college place to continue her studies. She’s moved away from the men who abused her and finally feels safe. 

‘The best thing was just having someone to talk to’ she says. ‘Thanks to the Barnardo’s staff, I went back to college and have a place to live and now my life is back on track.’