The powerful report of the independent inquiry, led by Professor Alexis Jay, into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, and last night’s BBC Panorama, are absolutely shocking. They are shocking for three reasons.
First, the extent and nature of the abuse reported is beyond what many would have ever imagined. The numbers of children and young people abused, totalling the equivalent of all the children in a large comprehensive school, is frightening.
That men of any cultural group could work together over such a long period, with tentacles reaching out into other areas, and largely without apparent detection or being exposed within their communities, is truly alarming. There surely must be more criminal convictions ahead.
Secondly, some attitudes expressed by police officers and others about the abused children should cause concern within the white indigenous community, as well as the rightful concern about behaviours by men and lack of action by leaders within the Pakistani-heritage community.
Thirdly, the independent inquiry report describes a culture within Rotherham council of bullying by councillors and outrageous sexist, harassing and abusive behaviour by some councillors and senior managers towards other managers and workers. This must have been a context where working well to protect children was difficult.
Indeed, those who did raise their concerns about the vulnerability and exploitation of young people, including those workers within the impressive ‘Risky Business’ specialist service, were undermined and not believed.
But the report, as well as leaving much to be addressed by South Yorkshire police and Rotherham council (and with relevance for every other police force and council), also highlights some causes for continuing concerns about national policies.
Concerns run through it about the under-resourcing of child protection in Rotherham. The government’s targeting of cuts on councils means the government grant is being reduced by 33% between 2010-11 and 2016 while referrals to children’s social care are increasing.
David Cameron has called for there to be accountability and for heads to roll following the Rotherham report. Many might see Cameron, Eric Pickles and their colleagues as having an accountability by making it even more difficult to protect children in the future.
More work, less time to spend with children and families and working out what is happening to children, with the imperative to close work down quickly to take new work on, is the disastrous situation being created in Rotherham and elsewhere.
Secondly, independent inquiry report highlights the historic difficulties in Rotherham of recruiting and retaining a stable children’s social work workforce, with a 43% vacancy level in 2008.
This will not have been helped by the culture of bullying within the council. But Rotherham is not exceptional in its difficulties in recruiting and retaining social workers and managers have worked hard to change this.
The national experience of turnover and recruitment difficulties is hardly helped by the government promoting serious case reviews as a means of explicitly and inevitably allocating accountability, which for much of the media and the public means blame when something terrible happens to a child. Keeping experienced workers in frontline child protection is also not helped when they do not have the time to do the job well.
Thirdly, in Rotherham senior managers seem to have lost touch with their frontline practitioners, denying what they were being told by those at the frontline. Listening to children seems to have become, for the organisation overall, if not for individual practitioners, a secondary concern. The drive for data collection and reporting has not diminished and remains a major resource requirement across councils today.
Fourthly, Rotherham was not short of inspections and reviews, including from Ofsted. These largely gave false reassurance that all was well. More and more is demanded now by Ofsted and there is even more fear about receiving a poor inspection judgement.
But there should be a realistic and restricted confidence that a snapshot of a sample of cases, although of value, will give any more than a time-limited and inevitably tenuous indication of the quality of services.
There is nothing to beat senior managers with wisdom, experience and expertise built over time being passionate about the welfare of children and staying informed about and in close touch with practice.
And this is where it all could get into considerable difficulty. The inquiry report comments on the increasing impact of fragmentation and complexity within and across services, such as health services, and about the disruption and distraction of organisational change.
Now, not only are there big cuts for councils, but the government is explicitly intending to open up all children’s social services to the market place, including to private companies. Senior management oversight close to the front-line will be lost within what may be big national and international organisations.
Local intelligence gathering and understandings of networks and what’s happening for children will become more complex. Stability and continuity will be undermined by the re-tendering and re-letting of contracts.
There is much for us all to reflect on and learn from this, including central government. It’s early days, but so far there is no indication they are reflecting on and reviewing how they are contributing to the undermining of services and the protection of children. The lessons from Rotherham are that we need to make it better, much better, not worse.
Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London and a former director of social services