How the cultural mindset of child protection might harm child sexual exploitation practice

Chris Dyke writes about how rape culture and child protection processes can create a negative environment for victims in child sexual exploitation cases

teenager
Photo: tugolukof/Fotolia (posed by model)

by Chris Dyke

Recent cases in Newcastle and Telford, in which hundreds of children were sexually abused by organised exploitation rings, challenge us to rethink how we tackle organised, large-scale abuse.

Some of the abusers in the Newcastle case added insult to grievous injury, by framing their abuse in terms of the behaviour and lifestyle of their victims. They add to a long tradition of ‘rape culture’, blaming child victims for abuse perpetrated by adults.

In 2018, it should surely go without saying that whether a girl was drinking, or what she was wearing, or whether she’d previously had a sexual relationship, should have no bearing whatsoever on the investigation and prevention of rape and other sexual offences.

I work as an independent social worker in the family courts, and as a lecturer in social work, specialising in the assessment of risk. In my work, I’ve become increasingly concerned that many professionals unwittingly use the same discourse as these abusers.

‘Shocked’

I have worked with numerous young people who were groomed and raped by older men, and been shocked at the language used by social workers, teachers, youth workers and many other professionals.

They tell me that a girl – a child – is ‘putting herself at risk’ by defying authority, staying out late, taking drugs and alcohol, and having relationships with boys her own age.

They then extend this finger-pointing to the girls’ parents, asking whether the abuse inflicted on her by organised criminal gangs was somehow her parents’ fault, or whether it happened because she is being abused or neglected at home.

Some of the victims I have worked with have lived in care homes, have lived chaotic lives, or come from families where they cannot expect safety, affection or even shelter at home. These young people suffer harm even without any contact with an abuser, and we need to address problems in their home life just as we always would (while also asking whether their life is chaotic as a result of – not as a contributor to – being groomed and raped).

However, I’ve also worked with victims from caring homes, with loving parents growing desperate as they try to protect their children. These parents are happy to work with the police, social workers, and other professionals to keep their children safe, but become exasperated as they, rather than the abusers, are treated as the object of concern.

Cultural mindset

Part of the problem is the old maxim that if all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The child protection system should be an ideal forum to help protect children from sexual exploitation (CSE).

Child protection (CP) plans are well-established as a means of coordinating professional networks, and promote the ‘curiosity’ necessary to find out what’s going on in a child’s life. However, in practice, professionals often find it hard to move away from the true purpose of CP plans: to address abuse or neglect in the home, by parents and carers.

While the structure of the CP process is flexible, the cultural mindset often isn’t. I find it worrying – and sickening – that in cases where the sole cause for concern is the abuse inflicted on a child by a stranger, professionals invite good parents to be picked-apart and blamed for their child ‘putting themselves at risk of CSE’.

Even working with a victim to improve their self-esteem, awareness and ability to protect themselves – while well-intentioned, and useful in many ways – carries risks. If that child is later abused, after being educated in ‘how not to be raped’, are they likely to blame themselves?

‘Unexploitable’

Also, focussing CSE work on the victim and their family can end up being diversionary: ‘make them rape the other girl’.

While there is no harm in providing sensible advice around self-care and safety – and while we should address the inherent psychological needs of young people suffering low-self-esteem, depression or other vulnerabilities – we must be careful not to extend this positive work into an assumption that preventing child sexual exploitation primarily involves making the victim ‘unexploitable’.

Guidance from the Department for Education on CSE anticipates this danger, advising that a different approach is needed than for more typical CP cases where the causes for concern primarily involve the parents.

The DfE also reminds us that in order to best protect a child, social workers need to see caring parents as part of the solution, not part of the problem. In any sexual exploitation case, if a professional has spent more time criticising the parents or the child than the abuser, they need to ask themselves why.

Chris Dyke is a Lecturer in Social Work, author, social researcher, and expert witness in the family courts.

11 Responses to How the cultural mindset of child protection might harm child sexual exploitation practice

  1. Too old for this stuff April 20, 2018 at 11:39 am #

    How about we teach boys/men not to rape?

  2. Sw111 April 20, 2018 at 3:20 pm #

    This article is very insightful in respect of current practise and mindset of professionals. The underlying principle neglect, abuse casts doubt in the professionals about parents, their ability to ensure the child’s safety and whether home situation, relationship dynamics have contributed to the vulnerabilities to CSE risks. Sometimes parents desperate for help are looked upon as part of the problem.
    Child protection process, plan and the interventions appear to be geared to blaming parent and if that is not the case, then the child.
    Is this approach partly due to risk averse practice where the parent with an injury to the child is considered a suspect until the medical rules that out?

  3. Carol April 21, 2018 at 12:11 pm #

    Well written with facts. I work on a CSE team and have witnessed parents who our helping us and are part on the team and doing everything they are asked to do to safeguard thier child and on the streets everynight looking for their child, being torn apart in a CP conference. I of course challenged this and at one point walked out in disgust of the tone of the conference. The parents were already down, blighted with worry for the safety of their child who have been groomed by monsters, and then went into a firing line in CP conference. A reminder. Some parents have done the right thing in life for their children. It only takes a minute for these children to cross the path of a grooming monster and as they say fell for thier charm . Then its a very hard road for these parents. Some parents feel like they have lost their child to a death as the child is so entrenched in the charm of the monster. Some parents if the child is of age such as 16 never see or speak to their child again as they are under the spell of the groomer. And finally, some watch in horror knowing thier child is being groomed and in harms way and can do nothing about it as they call the monsters their boyfriends.

  4. Katie Politico April 23, 2018 at 12:13 pm #

    I think a part of the problem is class in that social workers are largely middle class and our client group is largely working class (why? Abuse and neglect are non-discriminatory) with all the stereotyping and assumptions on the part of workers that entails. Having worked in several London boroughs – where there is a greater diversity of class and ethnicity of workers – and a southeastern county I can say the problem is much worse in the latter context. A solution is a greater awareness and reflexivity on the part of social workers of structural power dynamics.

  5. Anonymous April 23, 2018 at 12:17 pm #

    A large proportion of sexually exploited children are in the care system and protecting from CSE has been a serious problem for at least twenty years that I can think of. LAs fail miserably due to the very poor systems to tackle the problem and unacceptable attitudes are endemic, especially within Police forces. I recall children in one LA where taxis would be arriving with the abuser, to collecting a child literally outside the residential unit where the child was placed. Care staff and I repeatedly made thorough reports to the Police and Senior LA managers, but NO real action was ever taken. More often than not the Police perceived the YP’s lifestyle/choices as the problem. However the residential care staff were very protective, did not have this attitude and did their level best to take protective action. With no support from Police authorities this was impossible. The sloppy and victim blaming culture stems from the criminal courts, which permeates the whole system, as it is the Police and Criminal Courts at the forefront of bringing these offenders to boot. The problem is much worse due to the serious cutbacks. Police CPU’s have become general PPU’s and there are far fewer resources to tackle the problem effectively.

    CSE Teams are only scratching the surface. The problem is far more extensive and the average CSE Team would not be able to cope with the true extent of the problem. In one case I tried to communicate with the Police over a group of child sex offenders targeting looked after children. In that case, the LA had even sanctioned one abuser to accommodate one of the children two days a week because she was consistently being found at the abuser’s flat where he was also entertaining and encouraging the child to bring more children in care to his property! The Police response was virtually non-existent. I had to make huge numbers of phone calls, write endless emails and make extensive efforts to get a SW network meeting. Despite my best attempts the meeting never progressed and no-one else supported coordinated action. No senior manager seemed to take any control or interest either. The Police seemed disinterested. This is not just about the cultural mindset that needs to be changed but a major shift of whole organisations to create a much more coordinated approach. The problem must be taken far more seriously, requires proper funding and adequate resources given to the problem.

    • Carol April 29, 2018 at 9:32 pm #

      And what was the outcome? Hope you took this further?

      • Anonymous April 30, 2018 at 11:13 pm #

        Carol in the last case, after complaining bitterly to my line manager who shared my frustration, the two of us attended a meeting with the head of the Police PPU. He argued that the Police did take matters very seriously and the main problem was getting the evidence to charge the alleged perpetrators. We therefore looked at the potential for systematically gathering evidence over a longer period and using the Sexual Offences Act 2003, (esp S49) to get the evidence to get a Sexual Harm Prevention Order/Sexual Risk Order to control the perpetrators movements/’actions and prevent them from doing harm. In reality this was extremely difficult, largely due to the lack of a coordination of Police and SWs working together to gather the necessary evidence from multiple SWs across areas and boundaries; the numerous children spread across the county or from other LAs. With one child we communicated with that LA and they removed the child from our County. At the time there was no CSE team in place who could have taken on the role of coordinating and acting as a central point for providing info and evidence to and undertaking a much longer standing joint investigation with the Police.

  6. londonboy April 23, 2018 at 1:55 pm #

    See Section 3 of the Fenestra Serious Case Review report for more guidance – https://www.avonandsomerset.police.uk/newsroom/2017/11/serious-case-review-published-regarding-operation-fenestra/

    The title of this piece is oddly worded -‘might harm child sexual exploitation practice’
    The issue is one of harm to children and their parents not practice.

    The causes of poor practice are likely to be multiple – cultural, inadequate skills, resources and low ambition. Treating parents inhumanely seems to be the response of choice in this context. That some choose not to go down that route is to be applauded, the many don’t should be seen as shameful.

  7. Jf April 26, 2018 at 9:52 am #

    Can I contact the author?

    • G April 27, 2018 at 10:32 am #

      You can reach him through the Goldsmith’s website

  8. Sw111 April 26, 2018 at 10:58 pm #

    Working in an inhumane manner is unfortunately second nature to the profession that trickles down from management where them and us is rife and blaming someone/parent is so easy, penalising parent for upbringing afforded to the child.
    Profession has to have reflexivity and values of social care should embed intervention.