A lack of professional curiosity by social workers contributed to Oxfordshire council’s failure to identify the sexual exploitation of 373 girls, a serious case review has found.
Published today, a serious case review (SCR) into why it took the authority so long to respond to child sexual exploitation (CSE), found the lack of professional curiosity was a “theme” running through children’s services.
The review also found professionals blamed victims, many of whom were in care or known to social services, for the abuse they suffered.
Looking at the period before Operation Bullfinch – a high profile CSE investigation that led to the jailing of seven men for abuse – launched in 2011, the SCR found no evidence of wilful professional neglect or misconduct by organisations. However, it said much of the work should have been “considerably different and better”.
Lack of understanding
Because they did not fully understand the grooming process, professionals saw the sexual abuse of young people as “something that the girls did, as opposed to something done to them”, the review found.
Language used across social care, police and health may have influenced these views, the SCR stated, resulting in practitioners minimising the potential severity of children’s situations.
According to Oxfordshire’s missing persons database, children were described as ‘prostituting’ themselves, with one young person described as a ‘streetwise girl who is wilful’ and ‘deliberately puts herself [at] risk as she goes off with older men that are strangers’.
Abusers were described as ‘lads’ by professionals, which could have given the impression they were much younger than they were. They were also described as ‘boyfriend’, which could deflect from the “awfulness of what was happening by implying a benign or acceptable relationship”, the SCR found.
The SCR’s author, Alan Bedford, acknowledged that social care professionals also saw difficult parents as partly responsible for the mayhem created by the abusers.
Reasons for the council’s slow response to CSE included professionals seeing the girls’ difficult behaviour as something they had adopted, therefore seeing harm to them as a symptom of their own decisions.
There was also a failure to recognise that the girls’ ability to consent had been eroded by the process of grooming, while professionals felt “pessimistic” about the success of criminal investigations.
The review also uncovered “confusions about what should be recorded as a crime and investigated, a lack of curiosity, a failure to look into worrying events”. These failures were enhanced by weak supervision.
Maggie Blyth, chair of the Oxfordshire Safeguarding Children Board, said it was clear that between 2005 and 2010 there was no understanding of the type of abuse that later emerged.
There was a “culture across all organisations that failed to see that these children were being groomed in an organised way by groups of men, and therefore there was no concerted or organised response across Oxfordshire agencies”, Blyth said.
Despite a “worrying” group of cases over a number of years with multiple girls and perpetrators, and with a very strong association to children in care, senior management was not briefed until 2011, the SCR found.
Jim Leivers, Oxfordshire’s director for children, education and families, apologised to the victims and accepted the findings of the report. He highlighted the complimentary aspects of the report, which praised the council’s response to CSE since 2011.
“Oxfordshire now has a nationally renowned level of expertise in how to approach the multi-agency investigation of CSE,” the report stated.
Jo Cleary, chair of The College of Social Work, said the findings would be far-reaching and should impact how the social work profession deals with cases of CSE, from the frontline to leadership.
“A clear thread in the findings is how the behaviours of these girls were interpreted as those of ‘young adults’ rather than children,” she said. “There was a mistaken perception that young girls in Oxfordshire were in control of their actions rather than suffering a horrendous form or organised abuse by groups of adult men.”
She added: “Social workers must be able to exercise the utmost professional leadership when responding to difficult and complex practice issues.