Dysfunctional multi-agency working and a policy of hiring non-qualified social work staff are among the many problems identified by two serious case reviews into the sexual exploitation of young people in Rochdale.
The highly critical serious case reviews (SCRs) published today examined the events surrounding the sexual exploitation of seven young women by a gang of nine men over a period of years.
They highlight how disagreements over funding between agencies delayed attempts to create an effective specialist child sexual exploitation team, how a lack of communication resulted in a disconnect between strategic objectives and frontline operations, and a widespread lack of understanding about child sexual exploitation in all agencies including children’s social care.
Children’s social care was found to have failed to act appropriately on multiple occasions. When it was first alerted to the problem in 2006 by sexual health workers who told them of their belief that a gang of men were sexually exploiting young people, the service concluded that no strategy meeting or assessment was needed due to inadequate evidence, despite it being “incumbent” on the service to inform the police and start a Section 47 enquiry.
The council’s policy of investing in non-qualified social work staff, born of a desire to save money and a belief in moving towards a more diversely qualified workforce, meant that initial assessments were not carried out by highly experienced and qualified social workers as required by statutory guidance.
Social workers and other professionals were also found to have focused on the behaviour and lifestyle expectations of the young people and not their safeguarding needs and so “allowed themselves to be reassured by family members that they would protect their children, even when previous reassurances had proved to be ineffective”. That managers failed to challenge this suggested “that the problem was an organisational one”.
The culture of children’s social care in Rochdale was also criticised for not valuing other organisations, believing itself to have “seniority” over other partners and failing to share important information with other agencies.
High workloads within social care in Rochdale, a problem that had been identified in Ofsted inspections, was also noted as a factor that undermined the quality of practice. Social workers also told the SCR team that a focus on younger children following the death of Baby P was another contributory factor.
The council’s “non-accommodation policy”, which was in place from September 2006 to October 2012 and emphasised keeping children with their families, also significantly limited safeguarding options even though it was in line with national policy at the time. And when young people did become subject to child protection processes, the work done by social care was of “poor quality, marked by drift, poor adherence to procedures intended to act as checks and balances, a lack of planning or review, and poor recording”.
“The most critical weaknesses lay in the quality and timeliness of statutory assessments undertaken by children’s social care,” one of the two reports noted. “There were too many occasions when despite significant information having been provided by the young people or by others, children’s social care failed to meet basic standards of practice in assessment and as a result were unable to understand their experience or establish trust and confidence in the young people.”
Other agencies also faced stiff criticism, including the police who were found to have not provided extra resources when the scale of the abuse began to become clear – a failure that slowed the investigation’s progress.
The SCRs found “no direct evidence” that the race of the predominately ‘Asian’ men who carried out the exploitation led to an unwillingness by agencies to respond to the abuse, as some commentators have suggested. However, the SCR team noted that research has suggested that attitudes to race within communities does affect the way services are provided. It noted that the fact that the men were predominately of South East Asian backgrounds “points towards the need for further analysis and research as to what significance this did or not hold” although such an analysis lies outside the remit of a SCR.
Jane Booth, the independent chair of Rochdale Borough Safeguarding Children Board, said: “In reviewing the work of the agencies between 2003 and 2012 the reviews have identified a widespread pattern of weaknesses and failings, across all agencies at an organisational level but also in terms of some individual practice. The reports conclude that the repeated nature of these failures exposes fundamental problems and obstacles at a strategic level over a period of years and that this undermined the agencies’ ability to protect and safeguard young people.”
The SCRs’ many recommendations include:
- Rochdale Borough Safeguarding Children Board to create a framework for direct communication between it, service users and frontline practitioners and to review knowledge and priority partner agencies afford to working with adolescents.
- Children’s social care must continue to make sexual exploitation a top priority and all practitioners, including first and second line managers, must receive training on the issue of child sexual exploitation.
- Social care should also ensure young people can participate in the safeguarding process and that they are seen and spoken to in a timely manner.