Child sexual exploitation referrals rose 31% last year, reveals Community Care

Local authorities received more than 11,000 referrals about sexual exploitation in the past two years, while support for victims has fallen

Photo: Tuomas Marttila/REX

Child sexual exploitation referrals rose by almost a third last year, with more than 11,000 referrals made to social workers in the last two years, Community Care can reveal.

The most up-to-date picture of child sexual exploitation referrals, following a major investigation by Community Care, has found that, in the last two years:

  • Social workers received 11,276 referrals about children at risk of exploitation;
  • Referrals were up 30.9% in 2014-15, compared to the previous year;
  • The proportion of children going on to receive social services support dropped, despite the rise in referrals and abuse scandals;
  • 83% of the referrals concerned girls, leading experts to warn that agencies are struggling to identify male victims of sexual exploitation.

However, the investigation also revealed local authorities across the country are still failing to record referral information consistently. This means the true number of children referred for sexual exploitation is likely to be far higher than our figures show.

Patchy recording by councils

In total, 123 councils responded to a Freedom of Information request about child sexual exploitation referrals in England over the past three years.

Of these, only 69 local authorities provided data for two financial years, while 25 provided data for last year alone. Only 43 authorities were able to provide data for three years.

The 69 councils recorded 5,596 referrals in 2014-15, compared with 4,275 in 2013-14 – a 30.9% rise. Data from the 25 councils showed social workers received 6,990 referrals in 2014-15, making a total of 11,276 referrals received since 2013.

But despite the sharp rise in referrals, and increased awareness following scandals like Rotherham, the proportion of children receiving support is falling as professionals warn cuts are preventing them from intervening.

Our investigation found 90% of children referred in 55 local authorities received support from children’s services in 2013-14. This fell to 85.8% of children in 2014-15.

‘Profoundly worried’

David Jones, chair of the Association of Local Safeguarding Children Board chairs, said he was “profoundly worried” about the capacity of services to respond to rising incidents of abuse.

“I find it difficult to see how children’s services are going to be able to continue to meet the needs of families, whether it’s sexual exploitation or other [concerns], in this context.

“It’s quite clear as a result of the election that pressures on families facing difficulties are going to increase, there is absolutely no doubt that the financial pressures are going to increase…the prospects of families in difficulties are entirely bleak,” he said.

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Jones hopes ministers will think seriously about the social pressures that create problems, rather than blaming them on practice or management issues. He warned the government will look to “put sticking plasters over the social problems that will collate in the next few years”, leading to increasing pressure for children’s services.

Calls for national protocol

Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, agreed. “On one hand people are wagging their fingers disapprovingly, saying ‘this isn’t good enough’ and that ‘young people in such situations are not being addressed’ and yet some of the services which are actually critical in this may lose their funding,” she said.

Mansuri also addressed the patchy data, saying she was “disappointed” that so many councils are failing to record referrals accurately. She called for a systematic approach across England to “identify, recognise and scrutinise the issue”.

Alison O’Sullivan, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, agreed that a national protocol drawing “intelligence from all safeguarding partners, to get a clearer picture of how widespread this issue is,” is important.

Hidden boys

Our investigation also revealed that a disproportionate number of referrals concerned girls – 83% of those referred over the last two years. This contradicts research published last year, which found a third of sexually exploited children were male.

Experts have told Community Care that this discrepancy is because professionals are struggling to identify male victims of sexual exploitation.

“Boys are often seen as young offenders, disruptive individuals as it’s harder to identify the sexual exploitation of young men,” said Sheila Taylor, chief executive of the National Working Group on child sexual exploitation.

‘Unprecedented’ rise in referrals to police

Simon Bailey, chief constable for Norfolk police and national policing lead for child protection and abuse investigation, said police and councils are dealing with an “unprecedented” increase in reports of child sexual abuse and exploitation.

“You have victims who are far more aware of different types of exploitation, they recognise that they now will be believed perhaps in a way that they weren’t being believed before, they do now have the confidence to come forward and report abuse,” he said.

Police do, however, need to ensure their risk assessments are as accurate as possible, he said, following tension between some police forces and local authorities.

“Frontline police officers are becoming more aware of the risks to young children and the vulnerable [so] they are flagging up those concerns and, as a result, those working within children’s social care are having to deal with a significant increase in reports.

“It is creating, in some cases, tension whereby those concerns being forwarded by police are not translating into an actual risk,” Bailey said.

Government response

The Department for Education failed to address why referrals were rising or explain how it planned to support councils to meet the soaring levels of child sexual exploitation.

A spokesperson said: “There has been an increase in referrals to children’s social care in recent years. However, we know that councils are working hard to meet this demand – and more children are getting the targeted help they need.

“We are also encouraging councils to look for innovative ways to tackle problems early on through our Innovation Programme.”

Sexual exploitation hotspots

Bradford council received the most recorded referrals in our investigation (429) while its neighbouring council, Leeds, received the third highest (327). Both authorities saw a jump of more than 300 and 200 referrals year-on-year respectively.

The high rate of referrals in these areas was attributed to good awareness of child sexual exploitation, an early focus and specialist local teams.

Bernard Walker, independent chair of Wirral Safeguarding Children’s Board, said the figures reflect the “huge amount of work we have carried out in recent years to raise the profile of sexual exploitation and to give young people and practitioners the confidence to come forward where they may have concerns”.

This sentiment was echoed by Bradford and Leeds, both in close proximity to Rotherham where Alexis Jay’s report uncovered the sexual exploitation of 1,400 children.

Gail Faulkner, head of service for Leeds children’s social work service, said she does not believe Yorkshire has a particular problem with the abuse.

“There’s been a lot in Rochdale, in Oxford, but I think partners, people in schools, in children’s centres – people are very attune to [how] people turned their back on it in Rotherham – and we must not do that,” she said.

Julie Jenkins, assistant director for children’s specialist services in Bradford, said the rise in referrals was evidence that practitioners and partner agencies now have a much better understanding of child sexual exploitation.

“The development of that understanding has led to rapid action to: improve the identification and prosecution of perpetrators of this crime; support victims better and educate children appropriately about the risks and how they can get help,” she said.

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