All revelations of child abuse are shocking, but the details of the Rotherham scandal are shocking on a whole new level. Not only is the scale of the abuse hard to take on board – some 1400 children were exploited over a 16-year period – but the fact that it has taken so long for the full details to become public is exceptionally worrying. Of all the horrific stories that have come to light in recent years, the stories that Prof Alexis Jay has revealed are amongst the most upsetting.
Girls as young as 11 were gang raped. Children were forced to witness rapes, threatened with guns, or doused in petrol and threatened with being set alight. As ever, very many of these children were already highly vulnerable with perpetrators targeting children in care, particularly those in children’s homes, promising them the love and attention that had been so denied them. In every sense, these acts, and the failure to stop them, are social breakdown at its most acute.
As the Centre for Social Justice’s recent work on modern slavery showed, there has been an urgent need for greater leadership to stamp out this problem. Thankfully the Government, acting on our recommendations, is now starting to offer that leadership through its work around the Modern Slavery Bill, but the Rotherham inquiry has shown just how badly this work has been needed.
Whilst abusers must ultimately answer for their own crimes, when agencies refuse to act on reports of abuse, they too must carry a large share of the responsibility. The local establishment in Rotherham was blind to – or worse – turned a blind eye to an epidemic of child abuse that was taking place on its watch.
The sheer reluctance to engage is mind blowing. Whilst 1400 children were abused, the police, we are told, gave no priority to child sexual exploitation and regarded many child victims with ‘contempt’. Elected members and officers repeatedly ignored briefings. Three internal reports to the police and council ‘which could not have been clearer’ went unheeded.
As Prof Jays says:
If all of the authorities involved … had been less concerned with their own agendas and prejudices and kept their focus on the children’s welfare, some of these children might not have suffered the abuse and brutality we read about and heard about.
What this means is that somewhere along the line the fog of political correctness descended over professional judgement.Earlier reports suggested that some social workers saw 14-year-olds becoming pregnant by 24-year-old men, or young girls leaving their children’s homes in the middle of the night, as just young people exercising choice. Similarly, we are told that although ‘by far the majority of perpetrators were described as ‘Asian’ by victims … throughout the entire period, councilors did not engage directly with the Pakistani-heritage community to discuss how best they could jointly address the issue’.
As the Munro Review argued, child protection must not be distracted from its central purpose by any other considerations than the protection of the child. The following of bureaucratic process, the fear of offending adults, the normalisation of certain types of behaviour – all are secondary to whether children are protected from abuse.
The good news, insofar as there is any, is that this report hopefully marks the beginning of the purge of these practices in Rotherham. Yet the end of this inquiry cannot be a line under the issue. The authorities must say what they intend to do to support the 1400 children who have suffered abuse. They must explain why, given the extent of the abuse, the number of prosecutions remains so pitifully low (18 since 2012) and do considerably more to raise it. Only by helping to repair the lives that have been damaged and by bringing those who damaged them to justice can Rotherham begin to salve its conscience.
An excellent model which the CSJ has seen is the ENGAGE project in Lancashire. This places social workers, youth workers, nurses, a voluntary sector organisation, representatives of drug and alcohol services and the police in the same office so they can advise each other and share information. Prior to its establishment, Blackburn had dealt with only one case of child sexual exploitation. Now, they identify around 160 suspects a year and successfully prosecute nearly a quarter of them.
Intelligent initiatives like these sit in stark contrast to the collective inaction in Rotherham. They show that change is possible, that children can be protected, and that the abusers can be held to account. And they offer some hope that such protracted failures in child protection need never happen again.