By Eleanor Schooling
Inspecting vital government services is often a challenging job. It can mean telling difficult truths to dedicated professionals, whose personal commitment may not always be having a good enough effect.
So I am pleased to report good news in our ‘Time to Listen’ thematic report on five joint targeted area inspections looking in depth at the multi-agency response to child sexual exploitation. The report finds that there has been good progress made since 2014, when we published a survey about the ways professionals tackle this issue.
This previous survey concluded that agencies had been too slow to face up to their responsibilities. Two years on, and we have found that in the majority of cases, children at risk of sexual exploitation were properly identified and their individual needs met. Social workers, police, health staff and other professionals demonstrated to us that we should be optimistic that this is a task that can be done effectively.
What is good practice?
First of all, we need to be clear what we mean by tackling child sexual exploitation. It means identifying children at risk, preventing cases before they happen, supporting victims by listening to what they say, and bringing the criminals to justice in the courts.
The professionals whose work we inspected this year showed us that all of this can be done. It is the responsibility of everyone involved in tackling child sexual exploitation to learn from best practice and improve their own ways of working.
So, what is that good practice?
Professionals need to keep on the ball. In Croydon we found that social workers, police and youth offending teams were keenly aware that patterns of offending can alter over time, as can the ages and gender of those who are at risk. They met regularly to discuss these issues, sharing local information and intelligence, while fulfilling their own individual responsibilities.
Tackling child sexual exploitation should be everybody’s business. But two years ago, we found that there was not enough co-ordination and collaboration between agencies. Now, it is pleasing to report that local authorities have developed a “whole council approach” to dealing with the issue, so that housing, transport, and parks departments, as well as children’s services, are often trained to identify children at risk.
Strategies can be even more effective when they involve the wider community. For instance, in South Tyneside, providing training sessions for licensed premises, security staff, private landlords and fast food outlets will mean they are better able to spot the tell-tale signs of vulnerability and abuse.
One particularly effective example we observed was in South Tyneside, where 94% of taxi drivers have attended awareness classes, training them to spot children at risk, as part of the condition of obtaining a licence.
As a result of this measure, between 2014 and 2015 there was a 53% increase in calls to the police from taxi drivers in the borough about suspected cases of child sexual exploitation – tangible evidence of progress.
In Liverpool we saw evidence of the important role played by schools in prevention work. We found head teachers who were clear about how they could support vulnerable children. They were keenly involved in multi-agency meetings about tackling child sexual exploitation, at which children at risk of abuse were identified.
But once taxi drivers or school staff have identified children at risk, what happens next?
In Northumbria, the police have adopted a victim strategy, which remains in place even if there is no prosecution.
A trusted individual – who may be a social worker or member of a youth offending team – is identified as a single point of contact for the child at risk, with whom they build a trusted relationship, allowing the child to discuss their problem in a way of their own choosing. This approach was characterised by persistence, patience, help and support for the victim, capturing evidence where possible.
It is vitally important that we listen to the young people who have been the victims of sexual exploitation and really hear what they have to say. Where it was tackled well, children told inspectors that they felt professionals didn’t just see them as victims, but took account of their backgrounds and current lives; and their needs as well as their strengths.
Language also really matters. The best social workers are able to talk in an appropriate and sensitive way to – and about – exploited young people.
In one shocking example of bad practice, a 13 year old girl was described by a social worker as having “multiple sexual partners”. That kind of language is completely inappropriate, and does not suggest a constructive approach by the social worker.
In the course of the five joint targeted area inspections we undertook, there were several memorable moments that made this difficult job feel even more worthwhile. In Liverpool, one girl told us: “My youth worker never gave up and I am so glad she didn’t, otherwise I don’t know where I would be.” It is that kind of dedicated professionalism that we need to across the board to keep tackling this ever-evolving problem.
One key finding was that the current requirement that every child who has been missing should receive a return home interview is not working well enough. The sensitive encouragement to talk about why a child has gone missing is critical to understanding what the issues are. How can this work better?
It is my hope that this report will spark a debate which will in turn come up with imaginative solutions to this issue.
At all times, we should remember that disadvantage is not destiny. Vulnerable children and young people can get on track with the right combination of professional support, and make a success of their adult lives.
Eleanor Schooling is Ofsted’s National Director for Social Care