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The team shining a light on night-time exploitation and harm  

Rose and Jo receiving their Certificate of Excellence

In the heart of Bristol, as night falls, a dedicated team is working behind the scenes to combat night-time exploitation and harm, focusing on those most vulnerable. This initiative, called Night Light, is a collaborative project led by Rose Brown, a Sex Liaison Officer from Avon and Somerset Police, and Jo Ritchie, a Project Worker from Barnado’s. 

Recognising the crucial role street sex workers can play in safeguarding Bristol’s most at-risk children, Night Light has built a small team of dedicated practitioners who patrol the areas where street sex work is prevalent from 7pm to the early hours of the morning. By building trusting relationships with female sex workers, who are often the eyes and ears on the street regarding child exploitation, the team aims to provide protection and gather vital information. 

The incredible work of Rose, Jo and the Night Light team has been recognised, with them being presented with a Certificate of excellence Award by the Bristol Police Commander. Their efforts have made significant strides in protecting vulnerable individuals and bringing perpetrators to justice. 

Read more to find out what Night Light involves:

The night patrol 

At 7pm, as most people settle in for the night, the Night Light team prepares for their patrol. They make flasks of hot chocolate to give out and brief each other on the individuals they aim to engage with during the evening. Travelling in an unmarked police car, they identify and interact with street sex workers, offering support and seeking information on any young people at risk. 

One evening, just minutes into their patrol, they encounter a young woman on a street corner. Thanks to the team’s efforts in building trust, she is willing to talk. “I’m Rose, I’m a Sex Liaison Officer. We’re out tonight to check everyone is OK and to ask if you’ve seen any under-18s out this evening or aware of any under-18s who you’re concerned about,” Rose explains. 

The women often provide crucial insights, recognising the signs of exploitation due to many of their own traumatic pasts which have involved exploitation and abuse. They are also shown images of known dangerous sex offenders and are warned to avoid them. This information exchange is vital for the team’s efforts to safeguard both children and adult sex workers.  

Where did it begin? 

Night Light was established at the end of 2020, following significant concerns about a group of young people at risk of sexual or criminal exploitation. Child exploitation can often be hidden in plain sight, but when the pandemic hit and the streets became quieter it brought to light many street-based crimes, including the exploitation of vulnerable children.

A pivotal moment occurred when a group of men were seen providing alcohol and substances to young teenagers before taking them to cars and bringing them back shortly after. It later transpired that these teenagers were being repeatedly trafficked and sexually exploited. 

This prompted a large-scale police investigation and a multi-agency response, where it was identified that an important voice was missing – that of the adult street sex workers themselves, who held vital information in the battle of night-time exploitation.  

The insights from these women have been invaluable, allowing for early detection and intervention for children at risk. One woman remarked, “I wish this was here when I was a teenager because maybe it would have stopped me from being where I am now.” 

Support and safeguarding 

Night Light also focuses on safeguarding adult sex workers, who frequently disclose experiences of serious sexual assaults and violence. Rose shares, “Most of the women have been through sexual exploitation when they were younger. One example was a lady who ran from an abusive home when she was 13 and found herself being groomed and exploited into drugs and sex with older men. Other examples of women being beaten up and attacked, trapped, or sexually abused are not uncommon for the Night Light team to hear.  

“It’s sad, some of the women have had the most horrendous experiences and they just find themselves in this cycle of trauma where they use drugs to numb it. That’s one of the worst things, the women just get so dehumanised.” 

One woman who engages with the team has recently disclosed a serious sexual assault to the One25, a Bristol-based charity that supports street workers to move away from crisis and trauma.  

Rose has been informed about the report and wishes to speak with the woman in question, but it’s a difficult balance in building that trust with the police. “You’re not going to be in any trouble at all, we’re here to check you’re okay and we can just give you a ring and if you want to chat to me anonymously, that’s also fine, if I can help, I will,” Rose tells her. 

The woman gets into the Night Light car for a few minutes, where she is given warm clothes, chocolate and a drink and has a chat with the team. It’s moments like this that enable the police to identify dangerous perpetrators and to safeguard more women in our communities.  

In another instance, a woman who disclosed a serious sexual assault that had just occurred led to the team successfully locating and identifying the offender via CCTV. A police unit was swiftly sent to the man’s home where he was arrested and taken into custody.  

Successful partnerships 

In collaboration with One25, Night Light offers additional support. They train One25 in using early evidence kits for cases of sexual assault or rape. This initiative provides women with the choice to report incidents while capturing initial forensic evidence, which can be used if they decide to pursue action later. Partnerships like this are crucial in getting women to report sexual assault, as many of them would not come to the police. 

As Rose explains, “It’s so difficult for them to access the criminal justice system and they quite often don’t want to talk to the police.  

“We’re really aware of those barriers to reporting but we do know victims will sometimes tell the One25 charity, so if they can capture that initial forensic evidence and help us identify the offender, even if the woman decides she doesn’t want to do anything immediately, we can keep all that evidence if they change their mind later.”  

Often the Night Light team will join up with another police operation, Op Boss, which targets the perpetrators within the night-time exploitation of street-workers and children. This allows a comprehensive approach: the Night Light team flag men seen picking up sex workers and officers will then disrupt their activities.  

First-time offenders are often placed on a change course, where they learn about the vulnerabilities of sex workers and engage in powerful exercises to understand the impact of their actions. Over 1,000 men have gone through this course since it started with 95% not reoffending.  

Recognising the efforts 

Since its inception, Night Light has safeguarded numerous children and identified dangerous individuals. In 2023 alone, the team safeguarded 20 children at risk of exploitation and identified six males posing a risk to children. In the last eight months alone, the team have interacted with 96 women and 12 children who are deemed as ‘at risk’ of being exploited, and their work continues to grow and reach more vulnerable women and children as the trust between the team and the sex workers develops.  

How to report

If you have been a victim of sexual assault or exploitation, or are concerned about someone who might be, report it by calling 101 or online at www.avonandsomerset.police.uk/report. For anonymous reports on child exploitation, contact Crimestoppers at 0800 555 111 or visit www.crimestoppers.org. If you think a child is being harmed or in immediate danger of being harmed, dial 999 or contact your local authority social care department, or the NSPCC.  

Signs of child sexual exploitation can include: 

  • unexplained injuries, sexually transmitted infections or urinary tract infections  
  • changes in emotion, such as increased fear, anxiety or anger  
  • issues with their mental health, emotional wellbeing or self-esteem  
  • changes in behaviour, such as suddenly becoming withdrawn or isolated, or distrusting others  
  • changes in their usual habits such as eating, use of internet or gaming, phones or friendships  
  • having more sexual knowledge or displaying more sexualised behaviour than is developmentally appropriate for their age  
  • having things such as money, phones, expensive clothes or other items, when you don’t know how they have bought them  
  • being away from home or school where you don’t know where they are.