The Three Girls drama is a reminder that staying silent is not an option

The BBC series on the Rochdale abuse case showed it is vitally important to stand up for what's right - even if we are a lone voice like Sara Rowbotham

Maxine Peake plays Sara Rowbotham in the series, the Rochdale sexual health worker who repeatedly tried to raise the alarm. Photo: BBC iPlayer

By Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers 

Watching the harrowing BBC drama series ‘Three Girls’ hit a raw nerve for me.  In the late nineties, I worked for a third sector organisation and supported young women and girls who were homeless or in a housing crisis – many of whom were fleeing child sexual exploitation.  A lot of the work focused on advocating to children’s social care, housing providers, education, police, health and many other services on their behalf.

One of the most frustrating parts of this work was the brick walls we used to hit with other agencies, who were often dismissive of the young girls accounts, not believing them but preferring to focus on their behaviours. Those behaviours then became the issue and labels like ‘child prostitute’ were bandied about. As Maxine Peake’s character says: “There’s no such thing as a child prostitute.  What there is, is a child who is abused”.

Three Girls therefore did not come as a surprise to those of us who are familiar with this territory but I can understand the shock waves it has caused among its many viewers – especially members of the general public.

Three Girls is not necessarily comfortable viewing for social workers as we watch so many failings of our own profession on full display for the world to see. But it is absolutely necessary for us to fully acknowledge our shortcomings, along with others, so we become even more determined to confine such poor practice to a place in history, rather than allow it to continue.

‘Not heard, listened to or validated’

Sadly, I know we are not there yet. A social work student recounted to me recently that some young girls she was working with regularly disappeared from school and had disclosed to her that they were with a group of older men who plied them with alcohol.  When the student reported this to the school, she was met with disbelief and the girls were branded as liars.

Three Girls demonstrated time and time again how the girls’ voices were not heard, listened to or validated, compounding the abuse that they had already endured. That is why it is such a powerful piece of television. It demonstrates the importance of those who need help and support being able to tell their stories on their own terms – not ours.  Currently, there is a lot of debate in social work circles about whose story it is to tell about the work we do as social workers.  It is very clear from this dramatization where the ownership should lie.

Social work often has a fractious relationship with the media, but on this occasion I think that we need to pay tribute to the BBC for having the courage to make what I regard as a truly ground-breaking documentary drama series about the events that took place in Rochdale. It communicated very effectively and graphically what actually happens to children when they are sexually exploited – messages many of us have been trying to convey for years.

‘It only takes one person’

Watching this series has evoked strong emotional reactions, including anger. We recoil in horror as we watch the girls being abused by their perpetrators and then being let down so badly by almost all parts of the system responsible for their protection.

Nevertheless, I want to end this article on a hopeful note reminding us that we cannot allow ourselves to give into despair – even if we end up being a lone voice like Sara Rowbotham. It is vitally important that we stand up for what is right. As Jenna Bognar once said “It only takes one person that is unafraid to stand up and change something”.

Yes, this can come with a huge personal cost – Sara Rowbotham lost her job and describes being in a very dark place, including suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.  But she was courageous enough to speak out for girls who did not have a voice.  She also demonstrated the key attributes that all practitioners need when working alongside children, which we have dubbed as relation-based social work.

When I reflect on my days at that third sector organisation, I was very proud of the work that we did, including challenging the local authority to change its child protection policy to make it more sensitive to issues of child sexual exploitation.  Sometimes as professionals we were treated in a similar way to the girls we represented i.e. with open hostility. But we knew that remaining silent was not an option as it allows abuse and perpetrators to triumph.

As Detective Constable Maggie Oliver, played by Lesley Sharp, says in the Three Girls drama: “When we look back at our careers, it is important that we stood on the right side.”



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8 Responses to The Three Girls drama is a reminder that staying silent is not an option

  1. Hayley May 19, 2017 at 10:44 pm #

    As a first year social work student and former support worker for young girls who were victimised into cse this piece of extraordinary programming is a in a way a breath of fresh air. It is finally opening the eyes of people around us to look past the children’s behaviour and look at more about what their experiencing. It’s so easy to judge someone and only see the negative behaviour but the challenging thing for people to digest is the circumstances surrounding the behaviour. Well done to the creators, writers, and actors they’ve done an amazing job.

  2. Andrew May 20, 2017 at 11:29 am #

    The girls didn’t want their social workers or police to be courageous; they wanted the absolute basics from them – to do their jobs properly. Instead of talking to the girls about lifestyle choices, they forgot that they were children and deserved our protection. The girls were the victims, they were taken advantage of by patriarchy and they were let down, not just by the system but individuals within that system. The girls were also victims of class and power. The girls were part of an underclass that is perpetuated by the media and society in general – and were treated as such by police and social work. The programme is uncomfortable viewing for men because it forces them to look deep within themselves, question the reasons why these despicable acts occur in the first place and analyse their own behaviours.

  3. Jonathan Ritchie May 22, 2017 at 10:55 am #

    Nothing will change until the protection of reputation is abandoned and the culture of cover up destroyed.

  4. Sheila Franklin May 22, 2017 at 10:56 am #

    I was part of the first tranche of social workers being trained to recognise sexual abuse in the early 80’s and that training included an understanding of grooming and a starting point of believing the child/young person. I don’t know how we went from that to the disbelief in Rochdale and elsewhere and an assumption the girls were making “lifestyle choices”!

  5. Margaret May 22, 2017 at 11:21 am #

    I have worked in youth work, social work, Probation, and the charity sector. Some years ago I wrote a book for teenagers – Girl Friends – in which one of the plot lines was child sexual exploitation. Not as hard hitting as Three Girls (it is a fictitious adventure story), it never-the-less gives information to young adult readers (or parents and social workers) about the process by which young girls can get sucked in to this vicious world.

  6. Michael Murphy May 22, 2017 at 12:07 pm #

    The drama was excellent. But there is one part of the story that has not been told. Who will tell the story of the Rochdale social workers who were actively trying to get children’s voices heard? They have been reduced to an unfeeling and inaccurate stereotype.
    Also to ‘name’ the independent chair of the LSCB was totally unwarranted and unfair.

  7. Aakif May 22, 2017 at 4:26 pm #

    Not until we are open that there a problem with how certain members of our religious community treat and value women from our own and different cultures can this issue be stopped.
    Andrew sum’s up why this issue of childhood exploitation will be difficult if not impossible to prevent happening as even after Rotherham lots of people are still trying to ‘virtue signal’ and hide behind the ‘patriarchy’ or economic disadvantages to excuse the exploitation instead of focusing on why the abusers where allowed to get away with what they did, the impact of their culture and beliefs on their actions and why similar has occurred in many other towns and cities……

  8. Pete Morgan May 22, 2017 at 5:55 pm #

    While I agree with almost all the above comments, and found the docu/drama excellent if personally and professionally troubling as a social worker, a father of four girls and as a man, there are some additional points I feel need to be considered:
    1. The option of ‘life-style choice’ is a familiar one not just to child safeguarding but to adults safeguarding too – in this case ‘promiscuous teenagers’, a term I don’t remember hearing in the drama but do remember in other cases;
    2. Our systems for child safeguarding are focused on abuse and neglect within the family, not outside of it – in adult safeguarding the focus is on abuse and neglect within services rather than elsewhere.
    3. The drama implies Sara Rowbotham lost her job because she spoke out; this may be true, but the reality is that’ sexual health services have been subject to cuts as much as any other, so it may not be the case.
    4. If everybody else was named in the drama – apart from the girls/young women and their families, why should the Independent Chair of the LSCB be any different? As I recall, the recording was of her on Radio 4 when she was certainly named and
    5. It is important to remember that Children and Adult Social Care Services are not synonymous with Social Work. To quote Peter Beresford, ‘Ironically,much of the work that social workers have done with service users has been to overcome the limitations of the welfare state – to help them negotiate it, secure the support it was meant to offer them and to increase their confidence and self-esteem, sometimes knocked back by welfare’s more controlling, insensitive and institutionalised services.’