What happened to children who were sexually exploited by groups of adults in Rochdale, Rotherham and Oxfordshire is abhorrent to most of us. Those who were working to support children in these places at those times are no doubt filled with sadness and no doubt deep regret that somehow they were not able to make an effective intervention. Still, it is surely right that our primary priorities are to work towards ensuring that events like these cease and to make sure that the evil, cynical perpetrators of these crimes against children are the ones who are brought to justice.
David Cameron’s determination to jail people – social workers, teachers and others involved with children – whom he alleges have ignored child abuse when they were aware of it may appear to be a decisive and populist reaction but it cannot be the solution to a labyrinthine problem. The idea that the threat of a jail sentence will improve the work performance of someone whose job is to engage with and help families and children who are often isolated, anxious, desperate, fearful and overly defensive, is absurd. There should be little doubt that the United Kingdom’s prime minister is sincere in wanting an end to child sexual exploitation though after more considered reflection he may ask himself how far his net will be cast in his search for guilty parties. Indeed he may even ask “Where does the buck stop ?” His adamant statement of intent is one of a leader whose government has cut education, social care and health services to children. This has left fewer people to do more and more work as the consequences of his government’s austerity measures make life for poor and vulnerable people increasingly intolerable. While our political leaders and our media are quick to pronounce upon the failure of public servants they are less meticulous in analysing its causes.
The Serious Case Review into Child Sexual Exploitation carried out at the request the Oxfordshire Safeguarding Children Group by an independent reviewer, Alan Bedford, suggests some social workers, police officers, health workers, teachers and their managers may not have dealt capably with what was happening to these children in Oxfordshire. No doubt some should be held to account for this but also we should remember that they are not the ones who committed unspeakably evil acts upon children. It may be a surprise to some, but the vast majority of people who in one way or another work to support and to educate children want the children to flourish. Those of us who have been involved in work with children at risk will understand how it is possible for mistakes to be made even when our action or our decisions are meant for the best. It would be good if some politicians were to acknowledge that this is also true in their line of work.
What the somewhat squewed media headlines omitted, as the prime minister used the publication of the Serious Case Review as the backdrop to his own child sexual exploitation publicity event – held yesterday (March 3rd, 2015) at 10 Downing Street – is that the text of the review contained a number of observations that were not a fit with the sensationalist way this tragic matter was being reported. For instance the review’s author stressed how in the end, workers from a number of disciplines in children’s services ensured that these dreadful matters came to light. Setting the record straight, Alan Bedford concludes :
“Ultimately, it was the efforts of staff on the ground, and their observations and persistence, which was the main driver in the eventual identification of Child Sexual Abuse.”
“The discovery of what later emerged in the Bullfinch inquiry and trial was led not by leaders and strategic bodies but by more junior staff working nearer the coalface. A drugs worker for the City Council, a social worker, and a detective inspector, on their own initiative, and in the absence of any strategic work, each led a number of meetings which were unknown to the OSCB or top managers. Their efforts eventually culminated in a shared recognition that there was group-related exploitation of multiple girls. Action from this point became coordinated and successful.”
The report also comments on the honesty and openness of the workers questioned during the review process and mentions the progress the various agencies involved have made towards making improvements in their practice :
“The vast majority of the information for this SCR has come from the agencies’ own internal reviews, so the accounts of any deficits in performance have come from the agencies themselves voluntarily, and reflect a laudable willingness to be open about the past. They were equally forthcoming when the author made additional inquiries. The learning in Oxfordshire has already been significant, with much good practice now in place, and a professional mind-set now attuned to CSE, with children seen as children, however they behave. There is a growing arsenal of tools to identify, prevent, disrupt and prosecute CSE. Operation Bullfinch and subsequent prosecutions have shown concerted and rigorous action.” *
There are other observations which might be cited from the text but like those above they do not serve a table thumping, simplistic, righteous, scapegoating and narrow point view. It was interesting to note that while this was overwhelmingly the headline story on BBC television morning news yesterday, it was not mentioned at all today.
At the risk of sounding as moralistic as the prime minister, in the longer term we should strive to make sure as much as we can that this exploitation is brought to a halt by creating a society which truly cares about each of its individual members. We may not always succeed but we should never stop trying. This will be a society which genuinely accepts the responsibilities implicit in that now cheapened phrase “We’re all in it together.” We should be striving to create a community in which there are no winners or losers, where there are no exploiters of any kind and none who are exploited.
*Excerpts from the Serious Case Review into Child Sexual Exploitation in Oxfordshire: from the experiences of Children A, B, C, D, E, and F. Accessed at http://www.oscb.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/SCR-into-CSE-in-Oxfordshire-FINAL-FOR-WEBSITE.pdf