The reality of the widespread sexual exploitation of children and young people in many towns and cities across the country is a disturbing one to face up to. Not only is it a hideous reminder of the extent of human brutality and cruelty, but it forces us to recognise just how vulnerable a child can become. It also throws light on a culture of disbelief surrounding social services, police and local authorities that was so entrenched that one girl who told her story of abuse to authorities said ‘That was not enough for them to do anything about it, we were just troublesome girls…and they just didn’t want to know’.
Urgent action must be taken to help protect vulnerable children and young people from this crime in the first place. It is a tragedy that every girl abused in the case in Oxford had a background in care. They were reported missing 450 times over five years. No community around them, often no family to speak of. It is absolutely vital that, as the CSJ has commented in its recent report, the care system provides a second chance for every child to benefit from stable and loving relationships. For these girls, this was far from the case. Care should not exacerbate vulnerabilities, but mitigate them. Children leaving care should be provided with a network of friends, family and extended family to protect and nurture them. Family finding is a key way to do this.
Yesterday’s summit on this subject talked of national threats and serious crime. This is absolutely right, and the new Modern Slavery Bill will also help to escalate this type of crime to a much higher priority through recognising many of these cases as human trafficking and modern slavery.
But it is also crucial that the children at risk of this type of abuse are identified and protected before they can be preyed upon. It is a scandal that so many professionals allowed ‘abuse on an industrial scale’ to take place on their watch. It is vital that training and resources are provided to social workers, police and local authorities in spotting the signs of grooming and identifying susceptibility to sexual exploitation. Most of all it is crucial that vulnerable children, and particularly those in the care system, are given the opportunity to build harmless, healthy relationships that increase their resilience and show them that they are valuable, significant and worth looking after.