by Chris Dyke
Recent cases in Newcastle and Telford, in which hundreds of children were sexually abused by organised exploitation rings, challenge us to rethink how we tackle organised, large-scale abuse.
Some of the abusers in the Newcastle case added insult to grievous injury, by framing their abuse in terms of the behaviour and lifestyle of their victims. They add to a long tradition of ‘rape culture’, blaming child victims for abuse perpetrated by adults.
In 2018, it should surely go without saying that whether a girl was drinking, or what she was wearing, or whether she’d previously had a sexual relationship, should have no bearing whatsoever on the investigation and prevention of rape and other sexual offences.
I work as an independent social worker in the family courts, and as a lecturer in social work, specialising in the assessment of risk. In my work, I’ve become increasingly concerned that many professionals unwittingly use the same discourse as these abusers.
I have worked with numerous young people who were groomed and raped by older men, and been shocked at the language used by social workers, teachers, youth workers and many other professionals.
They tell me that a girl – a child – is ‘putting herself at risk’ by defying authority, staying out late, taking drugs and alcohol, and having relationships with boys her own age.
They then extend this finger-pointing to the girls’ parents, asking whether the abuse inflicted on her by organised criminal gangs was somehow her parents’ fault, or whether it happened because she is being abused or neglected at home.
Some of the victims I have worked with have lived in care homes, have lived chaotic lives, or come from families where they cannot expect safety, affection or even shelter at home. These young people suffer harm even without any contact with an abuser, and we need to address problems in their home life just as we always would (while also asking whether their life is chaotic as a result of – not as a contributor to – being groomed and raped).
However, I’ve also worked with victims from caring homes, with loving parents growing desperate as they try to protect their children. These parents are happy to work with the police, social workers, and other professionals to keep their children safe, but become exasperated as they, rather than the abusers, are treated as the object of concern.
Part of the problem is the old maxim that if all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The child protection system should be an ideal forum to help protect children from sexual exploitation (CSE).
Child protection (CP) plans are well-established as a means of coordinating professional networks, and promote the ‘curiosity’ necessary to find out what’s going on in a child’s life. However, in practice, professionals often find it hard to move away from the true purpose of CP plans: to address abuse or neglect in the home, by parents and carers.
While the structure of the CP process is flexible, the cultural mindset often isn’t. I find it worrying – and sickening – that in cases where the sole cause for concern is the abuse inflicted on a child by a stranger, professionals invite good parents to be picked-apart and blamed for their child ‘putting themselves at risk of CSE’.
Even working with a victim to improve their self-esteem, awareness and ability to protect themselves – while well-intentioned, and useful in many ways – carries risks. If that child is later abused, after being educated in ‘how not to be raped’, are they likely to blame themselves?
Also, focussing CSE work on the victim and their family can end up being diversionary: ‘make them rape the other girl’.
While there is no harm in providing sensible advice around self-care and safety – and while we should address the inherent psychological needs of young people suffering low-self-esteem, depression or other vulnerabilities – we must be careful not to extend this positive work into an assumption that preventing child sexual exploitation primarily involves making the victim ‘unexploitable’.
Guidance from the Department for Education on CSE anticipates this danger, advising that a different approach is needed than for more typical CP cases where the causes for concern primarily involve the parents.
The DfE also reminds us that in order to best protect a child, social workers need to see caring parents as part of the solution, not part of the problem. In any sexual exploitation case, if a professional has spent more time criticising the parents or the child than the abuser, they need to ask themselves why.
Chris Dyke is a Lecturer in Social Work, author, social researcher, and expert witness in the family courts.