Aliyah appears like any 24-year old – she is a fashion-loving, happy-go-lucky, and posts photos on Instagram. Experts warn that Aliyah’s smile hides abuse and exploitation, a common pattern among teenage girls.
Aliyah’s first memories do not include family trips or cuddling teddy bears.
Instead she recalls returning home after school feeling relieved when the front windows were open. Her dad had let in some air.
Aliyah did not know anything about drugs. She had learned that if she opened the window, he would be happy. “But if it was closed there is no smoke so Daddy doesn’t have what he requires.”
No one outside of the family was aware at the time what happened behind closed doors in the south London house. According to her, there were violence and even physical abuse in their household. Aliyah was sometimes the victim. Her sister and she would snuggle on the bunk beds, crying to go to bed at night.
Aliyah recalls times when food and money were scarce.
Aliyah, her siblings and other children would not be picked up by social service until many years later. Aliyah believes that there were opportunities to safeguard her and her siblings. She remembers her parents “best” faces when she called authorities.
Kendra Houseman is a specialist in child criminal activities and says stories like Aliyah’s are based on a simple pattern: If a home isn’t safe, it makes children vulnerable to being exploited. There are other hidden girls like Aliyah, she says.
Aliyah was able to make a complete turnaround despite all odds.
Aliyah, eighteen, was invited to celebrate her father’s birthday by his friends. Someone gave Aliyah champagne. After drinking so much, Aliyah was admitted to the hospital for alcohol poisoning.
This was Aliyah’s first step towards alcohol abuse. She says, “After that I would just drink – it was all I wanted to do.” Aliyah became addicted to alcohol at the age of 13. “It was depressing that I began to drink – it became a problem.”
- Amanda Kirton’s documentary Hidden GirlsLooks at the gang world’s forgotten girls and how they are sexually and criminally exploited
- You can watch the BBC News Channel on Saturday, 2 October at 13:00 or on BBC iPlayer.
When her parents split up, her dad left the home. Over time, it was known to be a trap house, a location where drug and weapon dealers congregated.
Aliyah distinctly remembers the time she was left there alone.
She says that she was 10, and left her house with drug dealers. As a young girl, she believed it to be her fault.
One man was a frequent visitor to the traphouse and noticed that something wasn’t right. She says, “He showed greater genuine care.” He was a good friend to Aliyah and would take care of her. “I believe he saw a little boy who didn’t have his parents in the same way that she did and wanted to give a bit of support when he could.”
Aliyah, though she was placed on the child protective register, was allowed to continue living in such circumstances. Aliyah also finds it difficult to comprehend the actions of authorities. According to Aliyah, they “missed a lot of stuff.” In this age and time, any child who was involved in domestic violence will be removed immediately.
Aliyah reached 12 years old and was placed into foster care. She was already an extremely troubled child at that point.
Aliyah claims that she has been moved around between 20 foster homes in the span of three years. She used to run away, and would sleep in a shelter. She would drink till she was completely drunk. Her behavior at school was worse. She would bully and break other kids’ things.
It was as if she didn’t know how to get out, that she felt like she couldn’t escape. She attempted suicide many times.
She began to hang out with other teenagers and was soon drawn into the world of violence, crime, and drugs. Aliyah was a thief, robber, and beat up people. She says that her trauma from childhood led her to a path of destruction.
Aliyah quickly gained respect and was soon given the responsibility of going after the criminals in her gang.
It was years spent hurting my self and other people, she said. It was due to what I had experienced – things I did not deserve, and it was affecting my life.
“It took my childhood. I lost it too soon. “I couldn’t get my money back, because the situation just got worse.”
She was a perfect target for grooming. Aliyah finally met a 20-year-old man who convinced her that she was in a committed relationship. She says, “I believed I was in love” with him.
The reality turned out to be very different. He had her sell his drugs to him,” she said. “I could not tell I was being exploited.” The pair split soon after.
Rita Jacobs is a London social worker who says she’s seen this “boyfriend model of exploitation” with greater frequency.
Jacobs states that “some girls don’t realize that they are being exploited.”
Aliyah was groomed online. Hannah Ruschen is the NSPCC’s child safety online policy officer. She says it has become easier than ever to exploit and target vulnerable girls in the past decade.
The charity reports that 5441 Sexual Communication with a Child offenders were reported in England and Wales for 2020/21. This is a rise by 9% over the previous year, and a 69% improvement from 2017/18 when the offense was introduced.
NSPCC says that more than 80% of online groomed children are females and that the majority of these children are 12-15-year-olds.
Ruschen says, “Because there’s continuous access to the child via internet, it can occur very quickly.” It can start as a friend request, and quickly grow into the sharing of images.
Aliyah left her foster carer family at 14 years old. Her friends let her stay at their houses. It was clear that she had been reported missing and so, couldn’t travel.
She eventually became isolated and gave herself up to the police. Her youth referral order was granted and she was immediately placed in a residential care home.
It was the start of a new chapter in her life.
Aliyah, who was 15 at the time of her arrival in Bridges Lane (a large building in Croydon), south London’s, was already 15. Although she tried to act like she didn’t fear, Aliyah was actually quite afraid when she first arrived at Bridges Lane, a sprawling building in Croydon, south London.
A staff adult gave her the guidelines: she was required to report home at a specific time, and that curfew had to be observed. All residents would eat together every night with their care staff.
Aliyah recalls, “She simply laid the law before me and that’s all I needed.” It was the first time she had ever experienced discipline. It was something I loved. “I just couldn’t display it, as I wasn’t sure anyone could trust me.”
Bridges Lane was not an easy place for Aliyah to start. She misbehaved and tried pushing boundaries. According to Aliyah, she believes that she was testing boundaries but was actually crying for help. I needed to have a family. “I just wanted to cry and just hug somebody and that’s what I found here. And I met Rowena.”
Rowena Miller was Rowena’s key worker. This was Rowena’s first job. Aliyah felt that Rowena was the right person for her. This was her first experience of feeling that someone believed she.
She said that she was traumatized throughout her life. A little bit of that traumatized me still exists in my body today.
It’s easier to handle it now than I used to. I had no idea I was traumatised. “Before, I did not know what was happening.”
Exploitation can have devastating effects on a girl’s life for many years. Aliyah is one of those girls. But Aliyah did.
She said, “That home helped me to relax.” “I was not lost anymore.”
With a fresh outlook, she left Bridges Lane. At 16 she found out she was pregnant. This was an alarming realization. She says, “I was not going to allow my child experience even half of what I experienced.”
It was clear to her that she was still under the surveillance of social services, and her baby would be taken away if any infractions were made. She was present at every meeting, and she followed all the directions to stop smoking or drinking.
She was seven years old when her baby girl was born. She admits it had been difficult, but the experience made a difference in her life. Aliyah said, “If she wasn’t there I wouldn’t be here. She saved me.” She is seven and has experienced everything that I had when she was seven. That is why I praise the Lord each day.
Aliyah now lives in a place she calls a “home” with her daughter.
Aliyah and Rowena live normal lives. Aliyah has a job, loves writing poetry, and Aliyah plans to study to become social workers to aid children.
“I’m still in the middle of a journey. My child is my responsibility. Because I am a mother, my home is not my house, but my daughter’s. I work. My community is a smiler. This is what I did. It’s a great feeling.
Many people believe that a sentence in jail is the most horrible thing they have ever experienced. You might be able to see things differently if your experience domestic abuse, as many female prisoners have.
“The day I was sentenced to death, my life changed forever.”
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