Tables must be turned in favour of sexual exploitation victims

Anne Longfield
Monday, September 15, 2014

Will 2014 mark a watershed year for vulnerable children in Britain? A watershed when, finally, the bleak reality of sexual abuse and exploitation that has for too long gone unchallenged, is recognised? A watershed when the institutions and bodies that have all too often turned a blind eye or, worse, been part of the network of cover-up, are at last held to account and change the way they work? And a watershed for the way that we all as individuals and communities view children and offer them the support and protection they need?

In a month when child sexual exploitation (CSE) has dominated headlines, we must ensure there is both the will and the determination at the highest levels to make this happen.

Behind the statistics are shattered lives. The number of victims in Rotherham is estimated at 1,400. Every one of these is or was a child. Every one of these children was let down by the authorities that were supposed to be protecting them. Professor Alexis Jay's Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham found that even today there is little or no specialist support for the victims who suffered appalling abuse, despite their acute distress.

In a number of cases, children and young people had pregnancies, miscarriages and terminations. Some of the babies born were removed from their mothers under care orders, causing further trauma when contact was severed. Some young abuse victims have become addicted to alcohol, drugs or self-harm in an effort to block out some of the pain.

For others, the mental scars were simply too much to live with and they were driven to the point of suicide.

The reports of how these children were let down are difficult to read. Let us imagine then how difficult these experiences were - and are - to endure. We shouldn't fool ourselves that Rotherham and other areas where cases have emerged to date are the only areas where it is happening. So much is unreported and the full scale of this systemic failure to protect some of the most vulnerable children may never be known.

Professor Jay's inquiry shone a much-needed spotlight on a gamut of serious failings. Failures involving child protection services, social workers, police officers and local councillors - institutions and individuals whose remit is to implement measures and enforce laws that help children to stay safe. The question has to be asked as to whether these services are fit for purpose. Are the drastic cuts in public sector budgets combining with an over-emphasis on bureaucracy and siloed working to create a system that is unworkable?

The great innovations in some areas and the optimist in me suggest this is not the case generally, but there does seem to be areas with all of the problems and few of the tools to resolve them that are in danger of being left behind.

The findings in Rotherham must produce the critical tipping point to create the transformative services we know are desperately needed. Reform to our public services has to be able to deliver the seismic shift in culture that the multitude of special case reviews has failed to achieve. It must reshape services around the needs of the child.

Now that Fiona Woolf has been appointed as chair of the inquiry into allegations of historical child abuse, the investigation can get under way. But the remit of the inquiry, spanning decades, is huge and no time limit has been set for it to report. It is also likely to be looking backwards on what has happened rather than focusing on the harrowing experiences that are still a reality for victims of CSE today.

4Children has written to Prime Minister David Cameron calling for him to establish a high level, standalone inquiry into the extent of CSE in Rotherham and other areas, and answer questions about how and why services that are supposed to protect children continue to fail them. This Cobra-style inquiry, chaired by the PM, would be given a deadline to reflect the urgent action needed to help children still suffering and prevent more children from becoming victims.

Children must be listened to and their warnings must never be ignored when this kind of abuse is reported. Perpetrators of child sexual exploitation rely on silence and people turning a blind eye towards things happening that don't seem quite right. Parents and communities must also play their part through their attitudes and actions.

CSE is based on an imbalance of power between a perpetrator and their victim. Now the tables need to be turned in favour of the victims, with the people who have the power to prevent it taking action to stop this horrific abuse.

Anne Longfield OBE is chief executive of 4Children