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.”