Rochdale council faces renewed criticism after damning abuse case review

MP calls for former council bosses to be disciplined as review reveals complacency, poor communication and dubious care policy meant opportunities to protect victims were missed

Eight of nine men convicted of abusing girls in Rochdale (Pic: Rex)

Social workers, managers and senior leaders at Rochdale council drastically underestimated the serious risk of child sexual exploitation in their area, despite evidence to the contrary.

This was among the findings of a long-awaited independent review into the council’s response to child sexual exploitation, commissioned after the high profile convictions of nine men for grooming offences.

Published today, the review – conducted by independent review officer Anna Klonowski – examined the internal processes and procedures at the authority, which has been repeatedly critcised for failing to protect young girls from years of abuse. It involved face-to-face interviews with past and present staff and made 16 recommendations for senior managers and leaders.

‘Controversial policy, lack of historical learning, lack of consistent leadership’

The review – carried out between June and September 2012 – found the council recognised child sexual exploitation (CSE) in the borough, but its response was blighted by “a lack of embedded learning” from CSE cases dating as far back as 1997.

Staff recognised the crime as an issue in need of a response but, despite specific cases, failed to grasp the severity or urgency, seeing it as “no more or less an issue than for other similar authorities”. Professionals interviewed by Klonowski also complained about “a lack of consistent senior leadership, or a lack of vision and direction in relation to CSE”.

The review also reported interviewees’ comments that the council’s former chief executive “did not appear to be interested in children’s social care issues, and if he wasn’t interested in a particular service he tended not to ask questions”.

‘Impact of non-accommodation policy’

A so-called ‘non-accommodation policy’ that existed within Rochdale’s children’s services, which has since been removed, was also cited as problematic. Ostensibly designed to support children and young people to remain within their family, one interviewee told the reviewer that they believed the policy was actually introduced to “keep teenagers out of care and support the need to keep services within the budget set by the council”.

Among the other concerns raised by the review were excessive bureaucracy, poor communication between senior leaders and the frontline, confused information-sharing and poor record-keeping.

Although the council is taking measures to address these issues, Klonowski found there had been “considerable uncertainty about the information that can and cannot be shared, which to a greater or lesser degree was disrupting effective business and investigations”.

‘Bureaucracy, poor communication, poor recording’

Social workers appeared to have been confused about what information they could share and when, with some concerned they were jeopardising a criminal investigation or putting themselves at risk by sharing information.

Bureaucratic IT systems were found to have been obstructive because they were designed for recording abuse cases where the abuser was known to the family and clearly identified. As a result, they were not suited to recording, and sharing among different agencies, the complex and unusual information relating to child sexual exploitation, such as abusers’ multiple nicknames.

Intelligence gathering and data

There was also no clear process for gathering soft intelligence from members of the community and drawing together information from a range of parties, including social care, youth workers and education.

The report stated: “Bringing together hard data around localities, e.g. numbers of teenage pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, mental health problems, school performance, absences from school and runaways, together with soft intelligence such as where young people hang out, noticing expensive mobile phones and clothes, men buying alcohol with young men/women in their cars will assist in the development of a rich intelligence base.”

The review did, however, praise Rochdale’s interim leadership team, brought in after the convictions, for working with partner agencies to explore how this database will be managed and maintained – and for improving its response to CSE.

Chief executive: ‘Mistakes will never be repeated’

Jim Taylor, incoming chief executive of Rochdale council, said the review made it clear that “some children were let down by Rochdale council”, while painting “a poor picture of the way the authority was previously run”.

“Hard-working, dedicated staff were also let down by some senior managers who appear to have shown no leadership and taken no responsibility,” Taylor said. “I am absolutely determined to ensure these mistakes are never repeated.”

He said the council has been prepared to learn “some uncomfortable lessons” to ensure children are kept safe from harm. “Since the review was commissioned a new interim management team has overhauled the children’s services department and made substantial improvements that have been recognised both in this report and in the Ofsted inspection last December,” he said.

Rochdale MP says senior officers were ‘complicit in crimes’

Taylor said he is confident the authority is now in a much better position to safeguard children and urged other areas to take Rochdale’s lead. “It would be pointless if Rochdale put in place the measures needed to tackle the issue but other areas did not. It’s everyone’s responsibility – local councils, the police, NHS, families and the wider public – to stop these terrible acts.”

But Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk called the review a “damning indictment” of a failed management culture and said there was “overwhelming evidence that some officers had presided over services that failed children and were complicit in serious crimes”.

“This report shows that there were alarm bells going off all over the place and they were ignored, he said. Senior officers turned a blind eye to child abuse and didnt want to know,” he said.

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