Sophie is 16. The oldest of six children, Sophie grew up caring for her mother who suffered from mental health issues and her younger siblings. The family was too proud to ask for help, so Sophie struggled on lonely and isolated, sacrificing her childhood for others close to her. 

‘I had a lot to do at home and I admit, sometimes it felt lonely. I started to get into trouble at school for attendance and by the time I was 12, I began falling behind’ Sophie says. ‘I suppose I did feel isolated and I never seemed to get any attention at home.’

Typical of many young carers, Sophie craved attention and it was this vulnerability that would make her the perfect target for an abuser, set on finding another child.

‘I was 13 when I met him and it all seemed so exciting. I was invited to my cousin’s 21st birthday party at her house and met this gorgeous guy. He said that he was 18 and we swapped telephone numbers – it seemed so innocent at first.’

The guy started calling Sophie regularly. He took her to the cinema, bought her thoughtful presents ‘daft bits of jewellery’ and paid her the attention she had never experienced. Within weeks she was “hooked” and there was no going back.

‘At first he really treated me well and it felt so normal, so right. My mum was getting worried, but I didn’t listen to her, I wouldn’t have listened to anyone, I was totally in love. But then he started to change. He got more aggressive and bad things started happening. He’d hit me, but the next day say he was sorry. I’d always forgive him. He started taking me to parties, he’d give me drink and we’d stay out all night. It just got worse, worse, worse.’

Sophie was just 14. Her relationship with her mother was deteriorating rapidly, she wouldn’t hear a word said against her “boyfriend” and she had started to go missing for days on end. Sophie was being dragged into a dangerous world of drugs, alcohol and sex. Still a child, lonely and desperately in love, she was powerless to resist.

‘The parties got worse and so did the way he treated me. At first I’d fight back, but it was really hard. Then one night at a party, he took me and some friends upstairs. He made me do things that I didn’t want to do. I was frightened’ she says.

At first Sophie had told her mother that she was staying over with friends. She regularly got grounded, but would then run away to be with her boyfriend. The grip he had over her life was terrifying – Sophie just couldn’t see the danger she was in. ‘Friends told me he was older, that he had a police record, but I wouldn’t believe them. I called them a liar, I was still in love with him’ she adds.

But Sophie’s regular episodes of running away hadn’t gone unnoticed. Her mother had reported the incidents to the police and they became concerned at her relationship with the older man. They began an investigation, interviewing Sophie’s friends and then alerted the local Barnardo’s child sexual exploitation project.

‘From then on, every time I went missing the project worker came out to me. She told me straight what he was doing and how it was not only me, but my family that was at risk. Gradually, I began to see what was happening – I realised the danger, that I needed to get out’ Sophie says.

With the help of Barnardo’s, Sophie plucked up the courage to tell her abuser to leave her alone. It wasn’t easy; he followed her, left messages and intimidated friends. But with the support of Barnardo’s and the police, she was able to escape the abuse.

‘Barnardo’s helped me realise what was happening, and then they helped me escape. The worker helped me mend the broken relationship with my mum and get the whole family back on track’ Sophie explains.