What social workers need to know about the government’s child abuse inquiry

The public inquiry has been announced, but what does it all really mean? We take you through step by step

Credit: Rex

What do we know?

  • Home secretary Theresa May announced the inquiry into historic allegations of child sex abuse in parliament this week.
  • Last February, Home Office permanent secretary Mark Sedwill commissioned an investigation into documents relating to child abuse. The investigation covered information passed to the Home Office between 1979-1999.
  • In carrying out this investigation, Sedwill found that 114 potentially relevant files were missing, presumed lost or destroyed.
  • This included files that were part of a dossier MP Geoffrey Dickens brought to the Home Office alleging child sex abuse perpetrated from within Westminster.
  • NSPCC head Peter Wanless has been tasked by Theresa May to review the Sedwill investigation, and look into how various public bodies handled abuse allegations.
  • In addition to Wanless’s review, there will be a broad panel inquiry into public bodies with a duty of care to children, which is not expected to report until after the election in 2015.
  • The panel is to be headed by retired senior judge Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, who headed an inquiry into child abuse in 1988.
  • The task of these various reviews and inquiries is to “address dual concerns: the concern that, in the past, the Home Office failed to act on information it received, and more broadly the concern that public bodies and other institutions have failed to protect children from sexual abuse,” the home secretary said.

Unanswered questions

The scope and terms of the inquiry have still not been announced. It’s not clear exactly which institutions will be investigated, who will be consulted or whether it will review existing police investigations.

Former child protection manager Peter McKelvie told BBC’s Newsnight that at least 20 prominent people in Westminster abused children, with some suggestion that they used children’s homes as a “supply line”, according to former health minister Lord Warner, but this is yet to be corroborated.

There are several police operations into child sex abuse currently taking place, such as Operation Fernbridge—a probe into up to 40 MPs involved or complicit in child abuse—and others investigating particular children’s homes and authorities. Whether this inquiry is designed to draw them all together is not clear, and clarifying this will be critical in the inquiry’s success.

The home secretary is currently saying both that the inquiry must have the fullest possible scope, and that it must be sure not to jeopardise any existing police investigations.

What is not clear is whether listening to the children is being put at the centre of the investigation or whether a politicised attempt to cover all bases is compromising the focus of the inquiry.

Voices from the sector

Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University, is concerned the inquiry is too broad. It should heed the advice of people who have practised as social workers and, while it is important that justice is done for historic abuses, it is important to not get distracted from present day concerns, he says.

“At the moment it’s an umbrella inquiry aimed at catching anything and everything that becomes a matter of concern. The more it stays a broad umbrella inquiry, the less it will be likely to dig down and the longer it will take, “ he said.

“It’s important that the inquiry is informed by experts and people who’ve got experience working in child protection. If people have misused their position and power they should be punished for it and if there are lessons to be learnt we should learn them, but there’s a danger that people think of these things as something that happened in the ‘80s that is now being dealt with,” he said.

“It’s important that while we are being concerned about things that happened 20 years ago, we don’t forget to focus on what’s happening today.”

Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Associations of Social Workers (BASW), expressed her support for the inquiry, but feels it hasn’t gone far enough. It should hold those in the highest echelons of power to account, even if it has serious ramifications for the establishment, she said.

“It is absolutely right that such serious matters are subject to scrutiny as we owe it to all the potential victims of the historical child abuse allegations. It’s slightly confusing as Theresa May has ordered two inquiries focusing on different things and the campaigners were calling for an overarching one that would bring all the threads together.

“Essentially, these are issues of social justice and should not be about protecting any vested interests. The very nature of child abuse is that it is secretive and takes place usually behind closed doors. We absolutely need transparency in these inquiries about what is being scrutinised so we can have confidence in our current political leaders and child protection system.”

Alan Wood, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), says the lack of clarity about how the inquiry will be carried out, and by who, means its value is still hard to judge. It should be conducted as quickly as possible, and at a high standard, so the sector can know what’s gone wrong and act accordingly, he said.

“We don’t know who the members of the panel will be and it’s extremely important that we’re clear about its terms of reference and its reach.

“I hope this inquiry is done in a timely manner and is as exhaustive as possible but there needs to be a balance between being thorough versus people’s need to know. Until we find out what happened, we can’t be sure these things aren’t happening now.

“It’s not a foregone conclusion that someone in the social care sector knew about it but what is clear is that some people were doing these things and that someone knew about it.”

Bharti Patel, of the charity ECPAT UK, sees the small signs of a shift towards putting children at the centre as a positive step, but there is a long way to go. Politicised inquiries that don’t listen to the children contribute to a culture that allows signs of abuse to go unnoticed and unchecked, she said.

“ECPAT UK has long campaigned for voices of children to be central to the discussions around their protection and safeguarding. The importance of listening to the children has been proven over and over in recent cases where failure to listen to the children and believe their story of abuse has resulted in a culture of impunity for abusers.

“There is a need for this to be practiced at every level, from frontline professionals working with vulnerable children to multi-agency platforms. These organisations need to ensure all staff are adequately trained to listen to children, and recognise and act on signs of abuse from an early stage.”

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One Response to What social workers need to know about the government’s child abuse inquiry

  1. Dr Liz Davies July 10, 2014 at 9:38 pm #

    The National Inquiry into Organised Child Abuse is a positive development in response to over 140 MPs who responded to social media sites confirming their support, However Butler- Sloss is not the person to chair this Inquiry. She chaired the Cleveland Inquiry in 1987 which plagued social work for decades afterwards with myths of overzealous professional intervention.
    The Cleveland Inquiry was to look into the arangements for dealing with suspected cases of child abuse and was not an inquiry into what had happened to the children or about bringing criminals to justice. We cannot risk a repeat of such a betrayal of the child victims and the professionals who so bravely raised concerns as well as another serious negative impact on social work and police investigation placing current children at risk of harm.

    An Inquiry must examine why the new statutory guidance Working Together (2013) abolished the definition of organised abuse and all guidance about the means of investigating it. A glance at Working Together (DfEE 1999) will demonstrate the contrast in the depth and accuracy of the guidance. It is tragic that social workers no longer have such guidance to support their work to protect children. Who made these changes to the guidance and why? This is a very important question to be asked.