Councils persistently failing to protect children from sexual exploitation, finds study

Office of the Children's Commissioner finds local authorities are in denial over the extent of gang-related child sexual abuse

Local authorities are still failing to protect children from sexual exploitation by and within predatory gangs and groups, despite raised awareness of the problem, a two-year investigation by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner has found.

The final report from the national inquiry, published today, criticised services for persistently failing to safeguard children and being in denial about the scale of the issue after finding only 6% of local safeguarding children boards (LSCBs) are complying with key government guidance on tackling child sexual exploitation (CSE).

Nearly all (98%) of LSCBs said CSE is a strategic priority, but only half could say how many victims had been identified during 2012 in the local area. This is despite high profile cases, including trials in Derby, Oxford and Rochdale, that highlighted the prevalence of abuse.

Although it recognised local good practice, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner found serious gaps in the knowledge, practice and services required to tackle CSE, despite “heightened alert”.

The report instead presents a new framework, See Me, Hear Me, for those who commission, plan or provide protective services. Developed with CSE victims, the model forces professionals to “focus relentlessly on the child”. It is accompanied by two other reports from the inquiry, which highlight the risk to young people and the complexities around their understanding of sexual consent.

Researchers from London Metropolitan University surveyed 607 young people aged 13-20 and found disturbing attitudes to sex and sexual consent. This includes the likelihood of young people, particularly girls, being blamed if they are sexually exploited.

The research evidences the “stark and grim reality” of CSE in gangs and groups and authorities’ failure to get a grip on the “below the radar” patterns of abuse, said Sue Berelowitz, deputy children’s commissioner for England.

“Organisations have largely focused on sexual violence perpetrated by adults against children. The understanding and recognition of peer-on-peer abuse and sexual violence in gang environments has remained below the radar and is graphically described through our inquiry. The reality is that children, including young women who are associated with gang members, are at high risk of rape and other forms of sexual violence,” Berelowitz said.

She called for a “sea change” in the culture of children’s services so victims’ needs are prioritised. “Our report ‘If only someone had listened’ seeks to do this by providing a framework for professionals to use when commissioning or planning services for or working with children. We believe implementing See Me, Hear Me will achieve that,” she said.

Campaigners and social workers applauded the research, but raised concerns that austerity measures and cuts will hamper efforts to implement the inquiry’s framework. Some also pointed to preventative CSE services, such as Safe and Sound Derby – previously praised by the government for its work on CSE – that have recently seen their funding cut.

Andy McCullough, UK head of policy and public affairs at the charity Railway Children, said the report painted an alarming picture of “children who continue to be let down by adults in positions of responsibility operating in a vacuum of denial, isolation and poor leadership”.

But he added: “With children’s services already facing austerity, rising demand and poor commissioning practice, it will be a huge challenge to roll out nationwide the report’s objective of a more child-centred framework. Radical systemic and cultural reform will be needed, backed by full government support.”

Bridget Robb, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, said the reality on the ground is “the opposite direction of travel to the report’s findings”.

“Social workers report that sexual abuse units are under threat of closure and that they are so overstretched that thresholds for intervention are continuing to rise, leaving victims with even fewer people they can turn to for help,” Robb said.

Services must be supported to work together, she continued. “Schools have to identify and report concerns about children, social services have to have the resources to follow these concerns up and police have to be freed up to monitor, apprehend and prosecute perpetrators.”

Annie Hudson, chief executive of The College of Social Work, urged social workers to be alert to the many different ways children can indicate risk of even a “relatively invisible” form of child abuse.

“The College supports the report’s call for high quality support and supervision, and effective inter-agency information sharing so that all professionals working with children will be better able to identify and act in situations where children and young people are at risk of this extremely damaging form of sexual violence and abuse.”

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