By Brigid Featherstone, Stephen Crossley, Anna Gupta, Jadwiga Leigh, Joanne Warner and Susan White
Louise Casey’s report into the child sexual exploitation that took place in Rotherham has proved highly significant, both in the immediate sense for Rotherham council and in terms of possible future policy changes.
The report has received surprisingly little scrutiny, however, although this is vital to ensure the answers proposed are helpful in dealing with the horrors of child sexual exploitation (CSE).
There are two troubling aspects of the report. Firstly, the process by which it was prepared, in particular, the lack of rigour and transparency in the methods used to gather and analyse data. Secondly, its failure to connect what happened in Rotherham with the current model of child protection that dominates services, and the need for change in this respect.
While Louise Casey was appointed to lead an ‘independent’ inspection into Rotherham, it was effectively an internal appointment by her boss Eric Pickles, the secretary of state for Communities and Local Government. She was free to choose both her own inspection team and her own methods for the inspection.
While the report contains a ‘Background and methodology’ section it tells us very little about the methods used. We are told over 200 meetings were held and the eight strong inspection team ‘reviewed documentary evidence, sampled cases and processes’ comprising up to 7,000 documents, 68 cases from children’s services, 19 staff files, 22 taxi licensing cases.
It also reviewed policies, procedures and practices. However, we are not told how this massive volume of information was reviewed and analysed within what was a very short time frame. This gap in the report should concern us, as it goes to the heart of issues of accuracy, transparency and rigour.
‘No information on methods’
Gathering a wide variety of data, getting the sampling strategy right and using robust methods of analysis to guard against ‘cherry picking’ findings are all recognised as important activities in research, in order to have faith that findings are as accurate as possible.
But Casey gives us no information on what methods were used to draw her conclusions, conclusions that are extremely damming with Rotherham council emerging as uniquely dysfunctional via a process where no attempt was made to locate the council or its ways or working within a broader context.
This lack of attention to context is very evident when assessing practice. While Casey acknowledged the existing child protection system is not designed for safeguarding children from CSE, the implications of this are not explored and Rotherham’s approach to child protection is treated as if it was uniquely problematic.
This is extremely unfair to caring, committed practitioners and managers working within an established approach and subject to serious sanction, often, if deviating from it. She also misses an important opportunity to explore why the established model of child protection might be so problematic for children and young people subject to CSE.
This model is not concerned with spending time in communities, getting to know young people and their families and developing risk sensible practices in very anxiety provoking circumstances. It is concerned with visiting individual family homes to assess for family dysfunction or risk, particularly to younger children, and has been honed within a societal context that often appears openly hostile towards their older teenage siblings.
The ‘child rescue’ model dominating child protection practice can compound the common perception that parents are in part responsible for the sexual exploitation of their child, thereby creating barriers to effective engagement.
Blame and disempowerment
Parents in Rotherham were often desperate for help, desperate to be partners in protection and were themselves victimised by forces way beyond their control. Moreover, as the Oxfordshire SCR found, a culture of blame and disempowerment of parents can lead to a loss of shared focus by all parties.
An emphasis on inter-familial risk fails to acknowledge that older children have agency and are increasingly influenced by wider peer, community and societal factors. In Rotherham, community engagement became outsourced to male (mainly) leaders rather than being seen as core business for child protection social workers. Individual risk assessment was the only game in town and when that was not tenable there was nowhere else for hard pressed practitioners to go often.
It is increasingly clear that CSE is not a unique to Rotherham and occurs in many different forms across the country. The Oxfordshire report highlights the complex power relationships that framed the lives of the young people and the incredibly difficult task of trying to help them. This complex work is made much more difficult in a risk-averse climate where social workers and local authorities feel blamed and shamed.
We would suggest that Casey’s report represents a missed opportunity to construct a more hopeful climate for children, young people, their families and those seeking to support them with a very serious and complex issue such as CSE.