Naivety led to inaction in case where known sex offender abused stepchild

Serious case review finds children's social care's naivety about sex offenders and faith in written agreements led to failure to protect child in Norfolk

Photo: Андрей Козаченко/fotolia

Naivety among social workers about how sex offenders operate and a reliance on written agreements led to a failure to prevent a known paedophile abusing his stepdaughter, a serious case review has found.

The finding comes in the serious case review examining the case of Child P, a Norfolk girl whose mother dated a man previously convicted of indecently assaulting his 14-year-old sister.

Despite knowing the man posed a threat to children, services in Norfolk missed multiple opportunities to protect Child P over a 10-year period that ended in late 2014 when Child P disclosed two incidents where the stepfather sexually assaulted her.

After these disclosures Child P was taken into care and the stepfather convicted of sexual abuse. Child P’s mother, who knew that her partner posed a risk to her daughter, was imprisoned for cruelty.

Written agreements

During the 10 years between the first signs that something was amiss and Child P entering foster care, children’s social care made four written agreements with the mother. All four agreements required the mother not to allow the stepfather to be left alone with Child P or live at the same address.

The first agreement, made in 2006, followed the stepfather being accused of indecently assaulting the mother’s 14-year-old half-sister. No further steps to protect Child P were considered because children’s social care accepted the mother’s claim that the stepfather lived at a different address.

“Though reportedly ‘custom and practice’ at the time, the use of even the first written agreement in 2006 was questionable, assuming as it did, mother’s ability and willingness to detect and report her partner’s grooming or explicitly sexual abusive behaviours,” said the review.

In November 2007 it emerged that the stepfather was living with the family in breach of the agreement but the initial child protection conference that was promised should the agreement be broken did not happen.

A second agreement in early 2010 followed accusations about the mother hitting Child P. Again social workers accepted the mother’s claim that the stepfather did not live with them.

A few days after making the agreement, children’s social care closed the case. “It is not obvious how this agreement was to be monitored because a decision was made within days to close the case,” noted the review.

Unsupervised contact

After a probation officer reported that the stepfather intended to move back in with the family, an initial assessment was made. The social worker accepted the mother’s assurances that she did not allow the stepfather to be alone with Child P and a third written agreement was made. The next day the case was closed again.

“The aims of this latest written agreement were unrealistic and incapable of being monitored after case closure,” said the review.

Later Family Focus, a service providing early help to troubled families, contacted children’s social care with concerns about the unsupervised contact the stepfather had with Child P.

After a duty team manager said Family Focus should remind the mother of the third written agreement despite it clearly being social care’s responsibility to do so, the early help service referred the case to the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH).

The MASH referral led to an assessment by a social worker but once more the mother’s assurances were accepted and the case closed, on the basis that since the mother had been a victim of child sex abuse too she would be more likely to spot and act to prevent abuse of her daughter.

The review said this belief was “questionable”. “It was more likely that mother’s experiences rendered her less able, confident or even motivated to act to prevent her daughter’s abuse; this episode was a further significant missed opportunity,” the review said.

Sick leave

In October 2014, Child P made her first disclosure of a sexual assault by the stepfather, who was subsequently arrested. In response a fourth written agreement requiring Child P not to have contact with the stepfather and to live with her maternal grandmother was drawn up.

Children’s social care did not inform the police that all the previous agreements had been breached and it later emerged that the stepfather continued to stay overnight with the family. The mother and grandmother also tried to get the criminal enquiries against the stepfather dropped.

While it was intended that the written agreement would quickly be superseded by an initial child protection conference, the allocated social worker went on sick leave and the need to call the meeting was lost in the handover.

In November 2014 Child P made a second disclosure of a sexual assault by the stepfather that lasted an hour and a half.

This revelation led to a strategy meeting between the police and social care at which social workers proposed a fifth written agreement that, the review says, was “commendably challenged” by the police. Subsequently, the police exercised their powers of protection and Child P was placed with foster carers.

Naive acceptance

The review concluded that social workers in Norfolk had poor awareness of how sex offenders operate due to insufficient training. They were naive in their acceptance of the mother’s assurances that the stepfather would not have time alone with Child P and belief that it was possible for him to live there and not have unsupervised access to the girl.

This failures in the case were further compounded by “a near total failure” of the children in need team to maintain records about the case while it was allocated to them, a failure to involve Child P’s birth father and inadequate arrangements for covering absences in the social care team.

The review said the lack of record keeping was an “extremely serious organisational failing and a breach of professional standards”. “Representatives of the agency have acknowledged that this was not unusual at the time and have attributed the failings to weakness within and discontinuity of management,” it added.

Mandatory training

Poor information sharing across services was also cited as a key factor in the lack of action in the case. The GP practice was not aware of the stepfather’s sexual offending and the scale of Child P’s non-attendance at school. The school, meanwhile, did not know that Child P’s absences were not medically justified as claimed by the mother.

The review also said the school was ineffectual in its management of Child P’s years of poor attendance.

The review said that information sharing in Norfolk has improved and social care now have a clear policy on the use of written agreements. However it said there still needs to be mandatory training for operational social workers and managers on working with adults known to pose a risk to children.

The review also recommended evaluations of the extent of compliance of the new written agreements policy and systems to ensure decisions to initiate child protection conferences cannot get lost due to staff absence.

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6 Responses to Naivety led to inaction in case where known sex offender abused stepchild

  1. Snowha May 4, 2016 at 4:41 pm #

    Its hard to understand how these people got it so wrong. Child P surely has a case to claim for damages.

  2. Rebecca May 4, 2016 at 6:53 pm #

    So annoying! Sw’s ALWAYS take the fall. When do Gp’s EVER attend conferences and core groups anyway?! Damned if we do and damned if we don’t. We are continually told we need evidence to prove claims. Without the SW turning up at night to check, the mother seemed keen to hide the truth. I agree more robust investigations should have taken place, but ultimately we have to work with disclosures and/or evidence. If we decided not to believe every mother who claims she can safeguard her child, foster care would burst at the seams. Unrealistic expectations.

  3. Ryan May 4, 2016 at 8:36 pm #

    Completely agree with Rebecca, yes mistakes were made in this case and as a SW I personally dislike and tend to not use working agreements. However, our job is to not police people and act with suspicion of families. We have to trust parents, we cannot stay involved in case we are being lied to. Clearly with this case, School or another Professional should have took the lead in ensuring the child was safe, it is not just the role of the SW. If an agreement was in place and there were no other safeguarding concerns, then the case would be closed by SW’s. Safeguarding is the job of every Professional around the child

  4. Anne ward May 8, 2016 at 8:34 pm #

    Surely there is enough knowledge in social work, police and medical practice as well as offender management, by now to know that child’s sexual abusers lie, manipulate and groom not only the children, but the partners and professionals they encounter.
    Written agreements are rarely appropriate for protecting children at risk of sexual harm.

    It is sad to read that the robust challenge from another agency, the police, came so late in the day for this child. Safeguarding is a multi agency responsibility, but all agencies need to have clear knowledge base about long term risks sexual offenders pose in order to discharge that responsibility. I am retired but I recall training seminars addressed by people experienced in working with sex offenders, as well as yps who had been sexually abused within the family. I hope Norfolk workers get access to high quality experiences.

  5. Ellie May 11, 2016 at 12:01 pm #

    This really does worry me – as do a couple of the replies (by Rebecca and Ryan). Anne Ward’s response, however, highlights the truth.

    Whilst it is very sad to see Social Workers “take the fall”, especially in cases where other services were involved too, and may have got things wrong, in this instance it may be said that Social Workers were at fault. To argue that Social Workers have to trust parents and families is somewhat naïve; especially when the family in question may include a known offender or abuser. In such cases, the role of the Social Worker arguably MUST change, and a level of suspicion and concern is warranted. Whilst Social Services are not the Police, it should be remembered that in cases of suspected abuse, or where it is believed that a criminal offence may have taken place, their duty is to liaise and work closely with the Police. However, this cannot happen if Social Workers turn a proverbial blind eye to problematic issues within the families with which they work.

    As Anne rightly points out (above) sex offenders – and other abusers – are notoriously devious. The whole point of BEING an abuser is that one knows one is doing something that one dos NOT want to get caught doing. Therefore, abusers are very cunning when it comes to hiding signs of what they are up to. As Anne correctly points out, they “groom” their victims and everyone else around them – this is to ensure that the victim remains as compliant and fearful as possible, and to ensure that anyone who might report the abuse is fooled into believing that no abuse is taking place.

    Sadly, I would have to agree that written agreements are rarely appropriate for protecting children who are at risk of harm. Firstly, we must be very aware that any written agreement may prove difficult to oversee – after all, the Social Worker is not at the family’s house 24/7. Secondly, it is a sad but true fact that any abuser will very likely LIE in order to confirm that he or she WILL uphold a written agreement, when actually he or she fully intends to BREAK it. I would doubt that a written agreement means anything at all to a potential child abuser, nor to anyone who has chosen to associate with said abuser and take his/her side. In this respect, the family and friends of known or suspected abusers must also be treated with caution. Unfortunately, love can, as they say, be blind – people who befriend, or get into romantic relationships with known abusers can sadly become “blind” to their faults. Despite knowing that the person they love is also a child abuser (or any other type of abuser), the person who befriends, or falls in love with them, comes to value that friendship or romance above and beyond any concerns that they ought to have about potential abuse. Thus, such people end up either colluding with the abuser (and becoming either an “enabler” or a “co dependent”) or else they turn a proverbial blind eye (in which they may dislike what is going on, but choose to ignore it). Wider family members and distant associates of abusers may also be involved to an extent, because they can also be duped. Some may suspect abuse, but because they cannot be sure, they do not report it. Others may be well aware that abuse goes on, but be so enamoured of, or so convinced by the abuser as to treat this person as though they must be innocent.

    In the above respect, child abuse operates much like domestic violence. The families in which it occur are, or become, dysfunctional on a far wider level than simply the immediate abuse that is going on. ALL forms of abuse and domestic violence require certain conditions in which to occur, and these are conditions which Social Workers (and other people like Police, Nurses, Doctors, Teachers, Youth Workers…) can with the right training be taught to look out for. Every professional who comes into contact with a dysfunctional family in which abuse is suspected ought to receive training which prepares them for handling the experience of working with abuse. They should know that abusers are devious and manipulative and will lie to your face. They should know that abusers, and the families in which they operate, often have “two faces” – a presentable face that they show to the world outside the family, and another abusive face which is only shown behind closed doors. They should know that people who are subjected to abuse, and those who witness it, may be scared or coerced into staying quiet; or that they may doubt that what they are witnessing is actually abuse, and thus fail to speak out. They should know that families in which abuse takes place may well be very dysfunctional families, and that significant levels of dysfunction may have developed over long periods of time – such families may actually hide problems that go back generations. Such families may demonstrate problems with communication; they may harbour secrets or encourage feuds; such families may be high in expressed emotion, or conversely, they may be very emotionally flat; there may be sibling rivalries, or competition and disagreement between immediate family members, or different generations; these are families who may live isolated lives and fail to make good social support networks, or they may be very tight-knit families and friends who all collude to hide the abuse; there may be additional problems going on within such families, like substance misuse or mental illness, or learning disability.

    Now, I am NOT saying that trust is necessarily a bad thing; indeed, a trusting nature can go hand-in-hand with a caring nature. However, the point is that when working with potential, or known, offenders and abusers, the desire to trust should be viewed with significant caution. This is not to say that Social Workers act exactly like the Police. However, there is a good argument to suggest that where Social Workers are employed to work with families or communities in which abuse, or serious offending behaviour, goes on they most definitely need to work in a very different way to the way that Rebecca and Ryan suggest. NAIVETY IS NOT AN OPTION.

    I firmly believe that maybe the Social Work profession needs to re-evaluate the way in which staff who work with families and communities where there is a risk of abuse and offending behaviour operate. As Anne says, staff working in such areas need to have a clear knowledge base, and need to utilize this to effectively discharge their responsibilities. They also should have a very good understanding of the LAW. Most importantly, they should always bear in mind the fact that The Children Act states that the needs and rights of the child take precedence. Thus, consideration of, and removal of, any risk to a child comes before accommodating the parents’ wishes. Where risk is even suspected, the worker must act in earnest.

    This does not require that workers be openly suspicious and hostile towards the people they work with – “policing people” comes across a somewhat too strong. However, in my eyes, it DOES require that staff adopt a more FORENSIC, evidence-gathering styled approach to working. Unfortunately, this does mean that a worker cannot always take a person instantly at their word – indeed, when working with potential abusers and offenders, it may be dangerous to do so. In cases where child abuse is suspected, it is also VERY important to remember that several people are involved and/or may have a view as to what is going on (the child, and probably parents or caregivers, possibly wider family members and friends). ALL of these people should be interviewed, and involved in discussions with Social Services. It is VITAL that the child is listened to, and that if the child reports, or alludes to, abuse this is taken seriously. Evidence should then be collected – statements taken from anyone who may have been involved, or who may have knowledge of the abuse. This evidence gathering should also include collecting evidence about the family in question – how they function, how they live, where they live, what conditions they live in, employment, how well the kids do at school, how well socialized the kids are, behaviour, any known criminal offences… A HUGE amount of evidence may be required in order to build up a picture of the living conditions of any child in a family where abuse is suspected. Social Workers need to build up a picture of the family’s known contacts, of their support network, of what sort of things the family regularly do… This necessitates liaison and very close working with other services which may be involved in the case, such as the Police, Health Visitors, Probation Services, Education Services, Charities, Youth Work Services…indeed, anyone who may have valuable information about the family or child. This is why regular Case Conferences and Safeguarding Meetings are so important. Indeed, if anyone suspected of the abuse is also known to have a past criminal history, it then becomes vital that Social Workers involved make sure that they attend any criminal justice meetings such as Public Protection meetings, or at least get minutes of meetings that are taking place which discuss the offender in question, so that they can keep up to date with the person’s offending profile.

    Granted, this is a LOT of work. I am fully aware of said fact. I worked for a number of years in Forensic Mental Health Services, and this was the nature of the job there on a day-to-day basis. What Social Workers who are employed in Child Protection Services perhaps need to be aware of is their need to work in a slightly more forensic manner. Where safeguarding and protecting members of the public (including children) come into ones job remit, one has to be aware of the need to carefully collect information and evidence, and to work closely with others who are collecting information and evidence.

    For this reason, I would suggest that some (though not all) workers who go into Child Protection work are simply NOT cut out for the job. Perhaps they were a bit naïve when they started they job? Perhaps they were the sort of people who thought they would be working with cute little babies and kiddies, only to find out that actually they might be working with abused and aggressive youngsters, and dysfunctional families? Or, it might be that by nature, some people are TOO trusting, and are thus very easily manipulated by devious abusers. Perhaps there is an additional problem that comes from spiralling caseloads and excessive paperwork, which many Social Workers now appear to be claiming is on the rise, and which makes it very difficult to devote quality time to the service-users with whom they are meant to work. Furthermore, when we stop to consider that a person who comes to realize that their day-to-day work involves frequent contact with suspected offenders and abusers, as well as their victims, and is thus highly emotional and pretty stressful work… we may understand why it is that some staff reach “burnout”!

    My feeling is that very close inter-agency working is ALWAYS required in such cases. I also feel that ALL staff involved should have a very rigorous training around the issues of abuse and offending – and that, ideally, this training should be the same for all staff involved (i.e. the Police attend the same courses as NHS and Social Services staff, as well as Education staff and any other staff who may come into contact with abusers or offenders). I firmly believe that such training should be run, or overseen, by people who have a strong background in working with abusers and offenders and/or a forensic background working in forensic services. Finally, I feel that it may be very beneficial to have some Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Forensic staff appended directly to Child Protection teams. Thus, if it becomes clear that a case is complex, and involves suspected and possibly protracted abuse; as well as maybe other issues such as drug usage or a caregiver’s mental ill health; there will always be staff specialized in these areas who can come in to advise on the case, or who can co-work it with a Child Protection worker.

    Just MY thoughts, for what they are worth!

  6. Ellie May 12, 2016 at 8:46 pm #


    Apologies for the long previous reply to this article, however, I should like to point readers to my response to another Community Care article, entitled:

    “As Doctors and Teachers fight back, why is Social Work laying down to Government?”

    In my second reply to this article, I write about something that I raise within the final paragraph of my post (above). I believe that Social Work teams should all incorporate a mix of Social Workers from different working backgrounds, so that they can best meet the needs of service-users. Thus, teams would include mental health staff, children and families staff, substance misuse staff, etc…

    For more info, see my reply to the article titled above.