Lessons from the Rotherham child abuse report
Opinion: It is naive to believe the Irish Child and Family Agency can overcome all the flaws of the previous regime in a short time
‘In the early 2000s, senior social care managers and police continued to believe that the scale of the problem was exaggerated.’ Above, a protest outside Rotherham police station following the publication of the child exploitation report. Photograph: Lynne Cameron/PA
Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council: Where everybody matters. You couldn’t make it up, but that is the slogan on the download page for Prof Alexis Jay’s report on sexual exploitation in Rotherham, involving at least 1,400 children.
What is very clear from this report is that some children didn’t matter at all, primarily the children of the poor. As the report says, “In just over a third of cases, children affected by sexual exploitation were previously known to services because of child protection and neglect.”
In social care, senior managers underplayed the seriousness of the problem, while police failed to prioritise child sexual exploitation. In one particularly troubling passage, a child protection conference was held about “Child A”.
It “was agreed by all at the conference that Child A should be registered [as suffering child abuse]. However, the CID (criminal investigation department) representative argued against the category of sexual abuse being used because he thought that Child A had been ‘100 per cent consensual in every incident’.”
At the time of the conference, the child was 12, and she had disclosed having sex with five adult males. Thankfully, the CID representative was overruled. How could someone believe a child of 12 could give consent to sex with numerous adults?
In the early 2000s, senior social care managers and police continued to believe that the scale of the problem was exaggerated. However, after a comprehensive presentation to senior personnel in 2005, the report is clear that no one could have claimed “not to know”.
The details of abuse are sickening – very young girls being ferried away at lunchtime from schools to be abused, and being transported from town to town. Violent threats, including the threat of being set on fire, left young girls terrified.
Jay comments that some council employees were very nervous about identifying the ethnic origins of abusers, of whom the majority were Pakistani, while some remembered explicit instructions from senior managers not to do so.
Apparently, there was a fear of damaging “community cohesion”. Agencies also tended to deal with male leaders and ignore the voices of women within the Pakistani community.
Some Pakistani women believed abuse involving white girls was noticed more, and it never seemed to occur to social workers that abuse might also be an issue within the Pakistani community.
The report describes the state of disarray within social services, although it has since improved significantly. There were: “significant vacancies; a lot of agency staff were being used; there was a lack of management oversight; poor accountability for casework; poor monitoring of unallocated work; poor monitoring of assessment times; looked after children lacked plans in some instances.”
Here in Ireland, before the formation of the Child and Family Agency, which now takes responsibility for child protection, child protection services were described as “lost and rudderless” within the HSE. We know that many cases were not even allocated a dedicated social worker.
While everyone wants the new agency to succeed, it is naive to believe that it can overcome all the flaws of the previous regime in a short time. It is still very difficult to rouse public interest in current cases. While we may be horrified at sexual abuse in Britain, Dr Carol Coulter’s careful and restrained report in June of sexual abuse cases in Irish courts received very little commentary.
Alleged child abuse makes up only a small percentage of childcare cases, but they have immense potential for harm. Coulter highlighted troubling inconsistencies in how cases are dealt with, and the services that are available. In one case, an application for an interim care order was heard on more than 20 days spread over six months. This is unacceptable.
In some areas of the country, it is even difficult to access a professional diagnosis of sexual abuse. There are also disagreements as to whether sexualised behaviour in children is always as a result of abuse.
One professional suggested that it could signal self-soothing and unmet emotional needs. In another case, it was suggested that it might show exposure to pornography. I would have thought unmet emotional needs that result in sexualised behaviour, never mind exposure to pornography, would all be red flag issues.
Just as in Rotherham, these cases most often involve children who are already deprived in many different ways, and cognitive deficits in parents are also often a factor. They are messy, complex, draining, utterly unglamorous cases.
The report on Rotherham focuses on very recent history – 1997 to 2013. What it found is what is always found – institutions tend to protect themselves, and there are categories of people that are deemed too sensitive to highlight.
In Ireland, we seem to cling to the delusion that it is only churches that suffer from that flaw. This wilful naivete leaves us blind to problems in other areas.