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Rotherham’s sex abuse scandal reveals failure at the heart of government

A report by Prof Alexis Jay has exposed shocking abuse and exploitation of 1,400 children as young as 11, over 16 years, in  Rotherham, describing 'blatant' collective failures of the care system, police and local politicians. A leading social worker holds the government to account.

I have been a social worker for more than 40 years, as practitioner, manager, director, inspector and ministerial adviser. I ran secure units for young offenders and for 11 years was responsible for those convicted of the most serious crimes in England and Wales.

Few things shock me.

Rotherham does.

Four years ago I was invited to review the detail and lessons learned from Operation Central, hereto Rotherham's only successful prosecution - a case involving eight Asian men and four victims. There were some 19 charges including vaginal rape, anal rape, oral rape against four victims aged 13 to 16.

The suffering of those children, at the time and subsequently, is quite unimaginable and life changing for them. Their suffering goes on.

The Independent Inquiry, by Professor Alexis Jay, published on 27 August, describes how many victims have developed psychological problems, self-harmed and become suicidal; and as young adults, how many have drug and alcohol addictions and experienced difficulties parenting their own children.  

It certainly was shocking, to me and to the frontline police officers and social workers that I met in Rotherham. From those individuals I saw no shortage of care, no sense of cover up and no slackening of professional standards. Frustration and dissatisfaction yes, mostly because of the difficulties in securing sufficient evidence to ‘nail’ offenders.

Sir Keir Starmer, the former Director of Public Prosecutions (until 2013), writing in the Guardian on 27 August, 2014, confirms that the patterns of sexual abuse and exploitation described in the Jay Report are not new, unique nor specific to Rotherham.

He added: “we are fooling ourselves if we think this child abuse scandal is all about individual failings.” Firing a few individuals runs the risk of satisfying our immediate anger at the expense of addressing the bigger picture and avoiding repetition.

Professionals know that abusers target boys as well as girls and that perpetrators of these hideous crimes come from all ethnicities and all communities.

What we don't know is the real nature of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham; namely, why and how certain groups of men are targeting very young white girls for the purpose of subjecting them to sustained and gratuitous criminal sexual violence.

Our ignorance only serves the perpetrators whose horrific activities are designed to be secret, unbelievable and undetectable, even though the modus operandi are remarkably similar in the cases which have been investigated in towns and cities across of the country.

From victims’ disclosures, we learn that girls as young as 11 are targeted, at least initially, because of their immaturity and naivety. Quite the opposite of what is often suggested about pre-existing sexual awareness and even ‘promiscuity’.

Young Asian boys are known to be involved in the initial targeting (or grooming) of the young girls and men as old as 40+ are said to participate in the sexual abuse itself (but not the young boys).

So much more needs to be known; about the connectivity between the participants at the various stages; for instance, whether the adult perpetrators were once ‘young groomers’ and whether the phenomenon is of longer standing than was first thought or indeed intergenerational and transnational.

At the Sheffield Crown Court in November 2010, I was surprised to see the perpetrators’ families, especially mothers and wives. Not just by their number or their demeanour in watching (and photographing with their phones) the young victims deliver their evidence via the live video-link onto a widescreen TV (visible to everyone in the court) but because they appeared far more aware and far less shocked by the horrific evidence than I had expected.

Here was a rare potential source of information to help authorities learn more about the ‘problem’; namely its genesis, gravitas, scale or simply to learn more about identifying that which is so difficult to ‘see’. After conviction, prison and probation officers must engage with these offenders, and their families, whilst under statutory supervision and share their findings.

Nobody in Government can claim ignorance of the problem, least of all its Department for Education, which despite the misnomer of its title, has overarching responsibility for safeguarding the nation’s children. Its own Inspectors (from Ofsted) have been frequent visitors to Rotherham and to the other areas. They and their fellow civil servants received the plethora of authoritative reports and analyses listed by Professor Jay and participated in the many conferences held during a decade of escalating concern.

What has been so clearly missing, and is needed more so now than ever, is the Government’s recognition, and leadership of a coordinated response to a national problem. Indeed, Article 34 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (ratified by the UK on 16 December, 1991) requires all governments to protect their children from all forms of sexual exploitation.

Ofsted, in particular, must develop a more effective approach to improving children's services; one which allows it to work with local authorities rather than its over-reliance on ritualistic inspection protocols and an EBay-like grading system.

But is Ofsted up to the task? Experience suggests that safeguarding children appears to have been relegated to the second division in the Department for Education, whilst successive education ministers have pursued the ideologically-inspired business of transforming the education system.

Either way, the combined effect, together with swingeing financial cuts and the appointment of education-centric but otherwise unqualified Directors of Children's Services (as in Haringey, Rotherham and many other areas) do not auger well for the sort of effective, strategic and tactical professional leadership required to tackle the nation's current concerns about the protection of its children.


 

About the Rotherham report:

Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham (1997 - 2013), by Alexis Jay OBE, can be read here and downloaded here.

About the author:

Malcolm Stevens is the Director of JusticeCare Solutions, an independent consultant and adviser: to providers of services for children; to central and local government, police and health service in cases of malpractice, death, serious injury and/or serious complaints by children and investigation and analyses for criminal, civil and coroners' courts.

He is a former Home Office and Department of Health senior civil servant, a lead Inspector with the Social Services Inspectorate, and the Government's professional adviser for 11 years. He is also a former managing director and director of children's services. He has been a qualified social worker and probation officer since 1973.

In July, 2010 Stevens presented a review of the lessons learned from Operation Central to the Rotherham Local Safeguarding Children Board.

About the author

Malcolm Stevens is the Director of JusticeCare. He is the former UK Commissioner for the International Juvenile Justice Observatory in Brussels and a former Director of Secure Training Centres. In his capacity as the British Government's youth justice policy adviser he was responsible for the cases of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables for 5 years.


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