‘It is absolutely behind us’: Councils reveal new approach to safeguarding after grooming scandals

In the wake of shocking sexual exploitation cases, what progress is being made to protect children and raise awareness of grooming? Max Daly reports promising news from Rochdale and Oxfordshire

Last month, a damning review was published into the lack of protection Rochdale council offered young girls suffering sexual exploitation. A similar review is expected to be highly critical of Oxfordshire council’s ability to protect young people after seven men were convicted for the sexual exploitation of six girls in the county between 2004 and 2012.

Both the Rochdale and Oxfordshire cases attracted widespread publicity, partly because they involved the sexual abuse of young white girls by Asian men. But, as the dust settles, what progress has been made to ensure these councils are better equipped to deal with future child sexual exploitation (CSE) cases?

Dedicated CSE unit in Rochdale

Rochdale key progress

  • More than 10,000 children have had access to awareness training sessions on CSE in schools.
  • More than 20,000 staff in various agencies attended CSE briefing sessions.
  • More support mechanisms for victims and those affected by CSE, including mentoring, counselling, training, accommodation and help with finding work or training.
  • An investigation into the performance of social workers involved has resulted in five staff members going through disciplinary proceedings and being reported to the Health and Care Professions Council.
  • Children’s services budget increased for 2013/14, despite a steep reduction in government funding.
  • Roles and responsibility of social workers and managers within children’s social care are currently being reviewed.
  • Anonymised events from the Rochdale CSE cases are being used as learning exercises for staff.
  • New whistle-blowing policy and supervision framework enables inappropriate behaviour or lack of ownership by staff to be immediately challenged by their colleagues.
  • In September 2012 a review of multi-agency responses to CSE in Rochdale revealed social workers had repeatedly ignored victims because they perceived teenage girls to be “making their own choices”. It also found serious faults with how children’s services dealt with allegations and referrals.

    The more detailed review in May this year repeated criticisms that, despite mounting evidence, social workers, managers and senior leaders seriously underestimated the risk of CSE in their area.

    So, what progress has been made to ensure victims are taken seriously now and in the future? From the evidence so far it appears the council, and other agencies, have been electrified into action.

    At the vanguard of Rochdale’s recalibrated child care services is the revamped Sunrise Team – the area’s dedicated CSE unit, made up of experts from social services, health and police. It now has eight new members and stronger links to social services and external agencies. It is also far more proactive.

    Currently working with 120 girls deemed at risk – a third of whom are seen as being at very high risk – the Sunrise Team is actively disrupting offenders. Driving around in what has become known as ‘the CSE car’, the team regularly visit local hotspots they have reason to believe are hubs for the recruiting and grooming of young girls.

    Usually these are places that come alive at night, like take-away shops and taxi firms. The links with taxi firms is now so strong that new rules mean every new taxi driver in Rochdale is vetted by the local licensing team before they are allowed to operate.

    The Sunrise Team is usually accompanied on its visits by a mix of housing, fire safety and licensing officers who have the power to close down flats and businesses that are suspected of facilitating CSE.

    Cath Knowles, Rochdale’s interim assistant director of childrens services, says this intelligence-led disruption represents frontline progress. “We make our presence known and girls are listening to us. As a result of one of these trips we closed down a take away shop and have a potential prosecution,” she says. 

    In a recent report for Radio 4, the team was followed as it entered flats where men had been seen taking girls. In one they found a room with dirty mattresses and the name of a girl known to social services scrawled on the wall. In another flat strewn with rubbish and old drink cans, they found a girls leggings. Later they found a girl with a man who was on bail for child abuse.

    According to Knowles, the new set up is a vast improvement on the old approach. “The Sunrise Team and the front door to children’s services, the first response team, were separate entities,” she admits. “As a result our services were a bit hit and miss.”

    Now everyone who comes through the first response team is integrated with Sunrise and both teams have a local authority, health and police element. “This arrangement means that along our care pathway, nothing is lost or missed,” Knowles says. “Everyone now uses the same tools, the same risk assessment models and the same policies.”

    Rochdale used to use “soft intelligence that relied too much on people talking to each other,” Knowles says, but it’s since become one of the first children’s services in the country to use an electronic intelligence sharing system where social workers can add case notes and have access to children’s files. It is a portal into which all elements of a childs care are uploaded, so all agencies involved in the case can log information and have access to information.

    “We feel we are doing an excellent job now,” Knowles says confidently. “We didn’t get it right in the past. But we have learned a lot and that is absolutely behind us.”

    Future multi-agency assessments in Oxfordshire

    Oxfordshire key progress

  • 2,500 staff across agencies working with children and young people have been trained in CSE. More specific, in-depth staff training is currently underway.
  • Handbook for workers across all agencies highlights the signs a child is being sexually exploited and provides practice guidance, including specific guidance on use of language and its impact on how these vulnerable children are seen. This is to ensure staff recognise the safeguarding issues and do not dismiss children as rebellious or deliberately making poor life choices
  • A specific category of sexual exploitation – to enable social workers to accurately categorise their work with these children, raise awareness and enabling the council to track and monitor through data analysis.
  • 20 extra social workers being recruited, as part of £1.4m investment in child protection (2013/14 budget).
  • Council-run care home for girls is rated ‘outstanding’, with absconding rates down 65% since 2011.
  • Since the high profile abuse cases came to light, Oxfordshire council has made a number of changes to its social care system. As with Rochdale, the authority has developed a dedicated CSE unit, although in Oxfordshire they’ve done this from scratch.

    Like its Rochdale counterpart, the £620,000 Kingfisher Team – based in an annexe of Oxford police station – is made up of social services, police and health experts. They investigate cases of suspected CSE and support victims and children at risk.

    The local authority is providing five qualified social workers, including a team manager, two experienced family support workers and an administrator. Thames Valley Police is then providing a detective sergeant, a detective constable, a case investigator, an intelligence officer and the missing person’s coordinator.

    Jim Leivers, Oxfordshire council’s director for children’s services, said the team is a result of the recent close collaboration between social services and the police.

    “Having worked together on Operation Bullfinch, which began in Spring 2011, we’re formalising our links by setting up this joint Kingfisher Team,” Leivers says. “We’ve been working very closely on potential perpetrator surveillance, victim awareness and general education.”

    The Kingfisher team is already helping and supporting those affected by CSE. The six victims in the Bullfinch trial were offered a package of support and help, a model the council will use in any instances where there are victims of CSE.

    The package of support included a named social worker who supported the victim individually and their family with any concerns or stresses pre, during and post the trial; ongoing support from their leaving care advisor; witness support while in court; help securing alternative accommodation if they ever felt unsafe after giving evidence.

    But Leivers said the changes need to go deeper. “What is needed is a change in culture, not just of social work, but the way in which all agencies respond to young people who appear to be out of control or at risk. We need to see what sits behind that risk, what makes this person act in the way they do. So this is about schools, social care, police and foster care.”

    The authority is also bringing together police, health and social services through plans to do a “multi-agency assessment of referrals in respect of child protection, but this is two years down the line,” Leivers says.

    And while some councils have closed children’s homes in the wake of scandals, Oxfordshire has identified a need for more local residential child care options, with just 10 beds in the county currently.

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