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Groomed: Danger lies closer than you think

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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‘Come on,’ I said. ‘Look at me, please, Keeley. I think I have a right to know what it was you were doing. This is my house, and you happen to be in my care. Come on. Tell me what’s going on.’

‘Duh!’ she said. ‘If you heard, then you already know.’ She really was speaking to me as if I was stupid. ‘It’s just phone sex. It pays better than sexting, okay?’

As if that financial gem was the key bit of information I needed. As if the ‘crime’ here – and she clearly didn’t think anything of it – wasn’t that she was fifteen and that it was clearly a paying enterprise, only that it ran the risk of someone overhearing. I truly didn’t know quite where to begin with her. She was fifteen. This was her version of normal teenage life?

‘Just phone sex?’ I said, trying not to gape at her.

‘Yes,’ she said, obviously not registering my sarcastic tone. She unfolded her arms and picked the phone up again. ‘Look, it pays well, okay?’

‘Having phone sex. With strangers?’

‘No.’ She looked irritable. ‘Not actually doing anything. It’s just making noises and pretending, that’s all. How else d’you think I can earn any bloody money? Sorry,’ she added quickly. ‘Earn any money.’

I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. Not so much what she was saying – I wasn’t that naïve – as the unconcerned way in which she said it. Yes, she could obviously see I was shocked and cross, but when it came to the business itself – for it clearly was a business (a cottage industry, even?) – it was as if she didn’t really see anything wrong in it.

‘So,’ I said, when I’d digested this. ‘Did you know that boy you were talking to?’

‘Boy?’ Keeley spluttered, not even attempting to hide her amusement. ‘That was no boy. For all I know that could have been some dirty old man. Of course I don’t know them. Why on earth would I want to know them? They’re filthy twats. All men are twats,’ she added. ‘Everyone knows that.’

Two days she’d been with us, that was all. Just two days. And we were already in territory that would be fraught with complications. Uh-oh. Here comes trouble, I thought darkly.

Chapter 5 (#u589aecc6-9912-5100-bdc3-9a62eeb44f69)

Monday morning, just as I expected, brought a flurry of phone calls, the first, which came at 8 a.m. on the dot, was from our fostering agency link worker, John Fulshaw.

I was obviously keen to fill him in on the events of the previous evening, which I’d written up in my log but decided not to email him about yet, knowing we’d be able to have a proper chat about it in the morning. Not only that; by the time I’d debriefed Mike (only after Tyler had gone to bed) and completed my log, I was almost dropping with fatigue. And having had so little sleep on Saturday night I got into bed and was asleep within seconds of my head hitting the pillow.

But I held fire. First things first. And John was obviously anxious to cover all the basics.

‘Yes, you were the “chosen ones”,’ he confirmed when I relayed what I’d been told about EDT, presumably after discussion, opting for specialist carers from the outset. ‘You know what it’s like, Casey – older teenagers are difficult to place at the best of times, even if it’s only for a couple of nights. And the fact that she made that allegation against her foster father was always going to make it harder. No one relishes that kind of potential complication, do they? But I knew you two would be able to handle her. Not least because you’ve been there before.’

We had, too. Our second ever foster child, a well-developed and very deeply damaged adolescent girl called Sophie, had started coming on to Mike and Kieron almost as soon as she’d come to live with us, one morning appearing in our kitchen in just her (black, skimpy, lacy) bra and tiny knickers. So, thrown into the deep end with a situation we’d only up to then discussed theoretically, we’d taken advice, and quickly learned how to protect ourselves, by ensuring she was never on her own in the house with either of them.

‘So I’m right in thinking that she is likely to be with us for a while then?’ I asked John, already knowing the answer.

‘I won’t lie,’ he said. ‘I’ve had a chance to read the file and speak to EDT, and I imagine so. If you’re willing to hang onto her, that is.’

To which he already knew the answer as well. ‘Of course we are, John,’ I reassured him. ‘But if that’s the case then there’s something you need to know right away.’

‘Oh, really? You’ve had problems already?’

‘In a way,’ I said. ‘Though it’s not so much a problem as a revelation. Well, it was definitely a revelation to me, I can tell you. John, what do you know about phone sex?’

He chuckled. ‘I’m not entirely sure I know how to answer that! No, seriously, probably about as much as the next man. Or woman, of course,’ he added swiftly.

‘Well, I know a good bit more than I did about it this time yesterday,’ I told him. ‘More than I’d want to know, to be honest. But it seems our young visitor knows substantially more.’

I explained about my unexpected discovery the previous evening, having already taken myself and my mobile out into the back garden, in case Keeley woke up and came downstairs. ‘And there’s money involved,’ I added. ‘She does this for money. There’s no official charge (Keeley had been more than happy to discuss all this with me, almost proudly), but the person on the other end of the phone can ask her to text her bank details so that he can send her a “gift”.’

‘Good lord,’ John said, his voice going up in pitch. ‘Really?’

‘Really,’ I confirmed. ‘It’s as simple as that. She texts her details, they make the payment, job done. No great fortune – it’s just the odd tenner, according to Keeley – sometimes just a fiver, depending on how long they “chat”. Or sometimes – and this is the bit that really worries me – she’s even given men her address so they can send her gifts in the post. Not our address, I hope. She says not.’

‘She’d barely have had time!’ John said. ‘She’s only been with you five minutes. Just as well you stumbled upon all this when you did, by the sound of things.’

‘But what happens now?’ I asked. ‘This has got to be illegal, hasn’t it? Surely it’s exploitation?’

John went silent, presumably processing what I’d told him. ‘Yes, you would think so, wouldn’t you? But is it?’ he said finally. ‘I’m not so sure. I mean, yes, it’s clearly wrong – and I’m with you on the exploitation aspect. But in the eyes of the law, if she’s a willing participant … and if they are only talking … well, I’m wondering exactly what laws are being broken here.’

‘Are you kidding me?’ I asked, appalled. Not least because John didn’t even appear to be that shocked by my revelations. A bit shocked, yes, but not OMG shocked, as Tyler might say. ‘I mean, come on – it’s clearly some form of abuse, surely?’

‘Well, I’d like to think there might be something, but … well, is it? I tell you what. Leave it with me. I’m going to look into this further and get some guidance about what, if anything, can be done. Though first of all I have to call Keeley’s social worker, obviously. Try and arrange a time for the two of us to come out and see you together. Later today, ideally. Would that be all right with you?’

I told John that yes, I’d be around all day, and that I’d appreciate it if he could get out to us as soon as possible – if only to advise me on how to address the situation with Keeley’s ‘hobby’, which, for all I knew, could be carrying on upstairs even as I spoke.

I jumped, startled, as I heard Tyler cough behind me. ‘Bloody hell, Ty!’ I said, clutching my chest with my free hand while I ended the call. ‘You’re like a bloody ninja. How long have you been down?’

He was already dressed for school and looked embarrassed. I wondered what, if anything, he’d heard. ‘I wasn’t being nosey,’ he said. ‘But is that straight up, Mum? About the phone sex? Flipping hell.’

Too much, then. But I’d already had a hunch he probably knew all about phone sex. Or at least the business of boys and girls ‘sexting’ each other – it had been all over the tabloids in recent years, after all, more often than not because some poor girl had found her explicit, private pictures plastered all over social media, after dumping some low-life of a boyfriend.

I followed him back indoors. ‘Flipping heck,’ I said. ‘Flipping heck indeed, love. I wish you hadn’t heard that. And it’s confidential, obviously. And shouldn’t you be getting off to school?’

Tyler had been with us long enough to know all about confidentiality. And also to know when a conversation such as this was effectively over.

He nodded, and reached down for his backpack, which was already propped waiting against the front door. ‘I know,’ he said, ‘but you know, Mum, you shouldn’t worry too much. It’s the latest craze. A couple of girls in my class even do it.’

My eyes widened in disbelief. ‘Really?’ Though I was surprised not so much that they did it, as the fact that it was all discussed so openly between peers.

‘Honestly, Mum. Really,’ he said, dutifully dipping his head and proffering his cheek for his farewell kiss. ‘They get perfume and make-up and stuff sent through the post – and then they come in and brag about it. I know – it’s mad, isn’t it?’

Mad. I wasn’t sure that was quite the word I’d use. And I was still stuck at astounded. Was that really what some teenage girls did these days? It beggared belief. Did they think it was normal? Did they think it was moral? And more to the point, were their parents aware of how they came by all the plunder? What had happened to taking a bloody Saturday job in a café or something? What was the world coming to, honestly? I thought of Marley Mae and Dee Dee and the teenage world they’d all too soon grow into. But it was such a horrible, unedifying thought that I resolved not to think about it any more.

The morning wore on, and the not-thinking approach mostly worked, but by eleven it struck me that though Keeley, with her traumatic background, was unlike a majority of teens, in one aspect she was exactly like pretty much every one of them, in that, with no school to attend, she still hadn’t surfaced.

And not because she was putting a shift in at her personal cottage industry; I’d been ‘just passing’ all morning, back and forth across the landing like some deranged stalker, and I hadn’t heard a peep from her. I made a mental note that tackling someone about her education must be a priority if she were to be staying with us for any length of time. A girl of her age definitely needed to be in school. And a woman of my age definitely needed her to be in school too.

And right now, it was high time she was up, washed and dressed, not least so she’d be fed and presentable when her social worker came knocking.

I knocked myself and, as before, went straight in. What had happened last night meant any concessions to her privacy would henceforth have to be earned.

‘Come on, sleepy head,’ I said as her head emerged from under the duvet. ‘It’s almost lunchtime and this afternoon your social worker is coming, along with my boss and a couple of others, so you need to be up and dressed and ready. Would you like breakfast? Or, more accurately, brunch?’

Keeley groaned and rubbed her eyes. She had very pretty eyes, I decided. Pools for Tyler to drown in? I hoped not. ‘Is it late, then?’ she said, looking around for her mobile. Which she found, in the bed, as was so often the case. ‘I don’t usually sleep as late as this,’ she said, squinting at it. Then, gathering her thoughts, she pouted. ‘I s’pose I’ll have to put the same clothes on as yesterday again, won’t I?’

‘Afraid so,’ I said, refusing to feel guilty about that. I’d offered to wash them and to lend her some of my own clothes last night, but she’d declined the former and looked at me as if I was insane re the latter. All part of her mission, no doubt, to get me shopping for her without delay.

But her smile was sweet enough as she pulled herself up in bed properly. ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘I won’t be long. I’ll be down in ten minutes. And just some tea and toast, please, if that’s okay?’

I told her it was and was just heading downstairs when my own mobile phone started ringing again. It was John again, who’d now been in touch with Keeley’s social worker, Danny, and was able to confirm that they’d both be with us at one thirty.

‘And I’ve spoken with several colleagues about the phone thing as well.’

‘And?’

‘And you’re not going to like it. Because apparently it’s a very grey area. For one thing Keeley is almost sixteen, which makes it extremely difficult to prove coercion. And for another, the fact that this seems to be random people she’s phoning – who you say she claims she doesn’t know from Adam, that’s right, isn’t it? – just makes it even more difficult. If she doesn’t know them, then they probably don’t know her either, and may well not even be aware of her age. And even if they were, that too would be difficult to prove. Which means it’s almost impossible to address legally, on either count; unless there’s a specific complaint, or some evidence that someone is abusing or grooming her, it’s just so difficult to prove, full stop.’

‘So it’s allowed, then?’ I asked, understanding what he was saying, and processing the reason why, but still feeling completely floored by it all. ‘A young girl can actually, within the law, have phone sex with strangers? Who pay her? You’re actually telling me this is legal?’

‘It’s not as clear cut as that, Casey,’ John explained. ‘And I do have people digging around for more information for me, but right now that’s all I know for sure. We can discuss it when we come over. Though one bit of good news is that I’ve spoken to a family liaison officer who works with children who’ve been groomed, and one thing we can do is have him come with us to talk to her. Keeley might not feel very receptive, but I think it’s important that we try. If nothing else to spell out the potential danger she may open herself up to – whether it’s online or via the phone – particularly if she is giving out her address in order to receive gifts. That part’s very worrying.’

And also practised by girls in Tyler’s class, apparently, I mused, having yet another ‘what’s the world coming to?’ moment.

‘It is,’ I agreed. ‘And I’d like that to happen very much.’

‘I thought you might,’ John said, ‘given that it’s your security at stake too.’

‘Not to mention the fact that we really need to nip this in the bud; I can’t have this sort of thing going on under my roof.’
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