Social workers have been criticised for not taking a parent’s concerns seriously in a case involving the sexual exploitation of teenage girls.
A serious case review, published by the Somerset Safeguarding Children’s Board, said practitioners focused on “short-term intervention for perceived parenting deficits” when dealing with parents struggling to manage their children’s behaviour while they were being sexually exploited.
It found 14 missed opportunities to properly investigate teenage girls’ ‘relationships’ with two older men, one of whom was aged 28 when he began exploiting girls while they were still children.
When one of the girls was 15, it was reported that she had “one or more miscarriages” and that perpetrators “physically abused…and humiliated her in front of others”. The perpetrators began committing offences against children in 2010 and continued until 2014. A police investigation led to the prosecution of the two perpetrators in 2016 and they were sentenced to a combined 32 years in prison.
The two victims discussed in the review both had babies because of the abuse from one perpetrator.
Despite knowing from 2010 that one of the girls was being abused, and then the second girl from 2011, it took “another 4/5 years for the police to establish exactly what had happened to these two girls and the identity of other children”.
It said agencies had difficulty “interpreting and reconciling national guidance and the law relating to sexual activity”, which was an obstacle to properly investigating concerns early on.
It criticised recurring missed opportunities by police, social services and health to investigate who the perpetrator that would father children with the two victims was and what relationship he had to the teenagers in the case.
“What is also evident is the lack of pro-active investigation by police and [children’s social care] when under-age children were pregnant or had given birth to a baby, even when, as in this case, [they] were known to be in a relationship with [the perpetrator].”
The review said that due to it being some time since the abuse started, it was likely that practice in Somerset had changed. It was also difficult to explain “professional shortcomings” due to a high turnover of staff in Somerset since the period in question.
The abuse also happened “during the period when Somerset’s safeguarding practice is now acknowledged to have had major weaknesses as identified by Ofsted”.
One parent repeatedly told children’s social care of their concerns about their daughter being engaged in a sexual relationship with an older man, but the response from services was often about how the children were being parented.
“Her father identified that she was being sexually, physically and emotionally abused by an older man, but this was not investigated at all in 2010 and 2011,” the review said. “The focus instead was in relation to allegedly punitive parental responses to [the child’s] increasingly out of control behaviour.”
“Social workers do not appear to have taken the father’s concerns about a much older boyfriend seriously, as reflected by the comment that the father’s concerns ‘cannot be assumed to be correct’,” the review said.
In the findings, the review author said the common model of social work services is for children whose behaviour appears to be beyond the control of their parents to not be blamed, and to assume that the root of the problem is within the family.
“This model of intervention is not likely to be effective when children are being sexually exploited by perpetrators outside of the family, who are able to exert control over the child in a variety of ways.”
Other findings from the review included:
- Police and social services would wait for the disclosure of sexual abuse by children before investigating further, as was the practice at the time.
- Children made disclosures to GPs and CAMHS which were not reported to the police or children’s social care.
- Children’s social care advised a girl’s school to refer her to CAMHS at a time when “an assessment needed to be undertaken”.
- It said it was “surprising” no action was taken on the case despite police and social care learning the age difference between the perpetrator and child was more than 10 years. When the girls lied and gave ages between three and seven years older, this was also accepted without reporting concern.
- A change in 2014 prompted the successful investigation of the case – components that led to the successful police investigation included time to research and review what was previously known, dedicated office space and understanding it would take time and the development of trusting relationships with each alleged victim
- Six of one of the perpetrator’s nine victims were known to have been referred to CAMHS one or more times during the review period. Children experienced difficulty getting the support, and the review highlighted the lack of alternative, more accessible support available.
The Somerset Safeguarding Children’s Board said a multi-agency action plan had been developed in response to the review’s findings, and incorporated actions already taken by the organisations in Somerset since the review period.