Social workers trying to protect children in a high-profile sexual exploitation case did so at “immense personal and emotional cost”, a serious case review has found.
The serious case review into Operation Brooke, a large investigation into child sexual exploitation in Bristol that saw 13 men convicted for child sexual exploitation offences against six young people, said professional boundaries between professionals and children became “blurred” because of a lack of adequate supervision.
The review was commissioned by two local safeguarding children’s boards involved in the case, Bristol and another authority that had to remain unnamed because of reporting restrictions.
It said that because professionals did not always get adequate supervision or the tools and advice needed to escalate their concerns, the boundaries between victims and agencies became blurred as professionals tried to react to “increasingly difficult situations without adequate single or multi-agency support”.
It highlighted how social workers and managers in the unnamed local authority developed a model designed to meet the needs of teenagers in care that resulted in “immense personal and emotional cost to staff”.
The model included providing a drop-in facilities for young people in care and a stable team of consistent social workers. But while the review said the model likely “provided much emotional support to children”, workers felt they lacked access to expert advice and it “did not succeed” at intervening and protecting children from sexual exploitation.
A social worker and team manager told the review of how they spent their nights and weekends looking for a young person or bringing them back to a safe place.
“I was the only consistent person in their life,” the social worker said. “I felt totally responsible, I would pick her up in the night…I felt like I had a parental role…It was a difficult thing for me.”
The review added: “Workers described feeling they had no tools in their toolbox to know what response they should make and the situation coincided with a period of instability and change in senior and middle management roles.”
The unnamed authority has since stopped using its delivery model and developed it into a service that now provides more supervisory support to staff.
Slow to respond
The review examined the multi-agency response to child sexual exploitation between 2012 and 2014, and found that children’s social care, the police and other key agencies were “slow to recognise during this time period that sexual exploitation of any of the children was taking place”.
“Many of the crimes committed against [the children] were horrific and beyond most people’s comprehension,” the review said.
On one occasion, pressure to find an out-of-area placement for a 16-year-old-girl saw her placed in an area known for drug crime and other criminal activity on a Friday night.
“The social worker herself recalled feeling distinctly uncomfortable when she took the child to Bristol, but felt helpless to find an alternative at that point of the evening,” the review reported.
Police were called to this placement several times and the girl made “limited disclosures of sexual offences to social workers and care workers”.
“What was notable on the many occasions that the young person told staff of having sex in return for drugs or money, was the lack of any child protection enquiries being initiated by the other local authority’s children’s social care and police,” the review said. “This was due to this being perceived as consensual activity by the front line staff and the fact she was over 16.”
The review said that “confused and confusing” national policy on sexual activity among teenagers “leaves professionals and managers struggling to recognise and distinguish between sexual abuse, sexual exploitation and/or underage sexual activity”. As a result some children are left at risk of continued exploitation.
It added that child protection process in England focus primarily on familial child abuse or neglect, and that sexual exploitation victims “are likely to receive an inconsistent response to their safeguarding needs”.
Children’s social care’s increasing reliance on agency social workers is also making it “very difficult” to provide consistency for children the review said.
Sally Lewis, the independent chair of the Bristol Safeguarding Children Board, said the review did not identify “the kind of endemic failure to act which has been seen in other parts of the country”.
“It highlights the need for professionals to have not only the appropriate knowledge and insights, but also the correct tools and approaches to support the children and intervene with perpetrators,” she said.