A huge amount has been written and spoken about in reaction to the report about child sexual exploitation in Rotherham. I am not going to comment on the specifics of what happened there but would say that this is obviously not a new problem. The issue of young people out late at night on the street being targeted by men has been highlighted some years ago by other police forces and was the subject of news reports and documentaries. In Oldham there has been Operation Messenger for many years and in Manchester the Protect team both involving police and social workers focussing on this issue. In Rochdale successful prosecutions have been achieved and other cases are still being investigated.
It is inevitable and understandable that we seek simple answers to what are complex and emotive issues surrounding those in abusive relationships, the abusers themselves and the way the police and the wider criminal justice systems deals with sexual offences.
Those not involved with these issues find it hard to understand why the police and social services cannot protect vulnerable young people and arrest and convict abusers.
The first thing to say is that there have been advances in child protection across the country and many successful prosecutions and other cases where families and children are helped to put their lives back together. On the other hand there are a number of important policy issues for which there are no easy answers.
The cases in Rotherham, Rochdale and elsewhere involve young people who often have a number of different problems in their lives and get drawn into inappropriate relationships with men which then lead to serious sexual abuse. It is in the nature of an abusive relationship that the victim does not recognise the danger they are in and don’t want to leave the abuser.
When parents, teachers, social workers or police officers try to get them to end the relationship and stop meeting the abuser they often refuse and of course the abuser will still try and get to them. The answer seems obvious that if a child is in danger and refuses to protect themselves and other strategies fail then they should be placed in secure accommodation for their own protection. The problem is that this is obviously a drastic step which requires specialist facilities. More importantly we know that such a step can have a very damaging impact on that young person and often for the rest of their lives because they are removed from their family, their school and their friends. Of course the better course would be to try and remove the abuser but that takes a lot more time and is linked to the second major policy issue, how the court system deals with sexual offences.
Our experience of dealing with girls who are victims of child sexual exploitation is that it takes on average around nine months for us to build a relationship with that young person to the point where they are willing to complain about their abuser and support a prosecution. The problem is that in many cases without that prosecution it is often very difficult to control the activities of the abuser. The challenges don’t end there. As I have said many of those who are abused have serious problems in their lives, may have had drug or alcohol issues, may have told lies to protect their abusers and will have been involved in what some would call promiscuous behaviour. The problem is that these “weaknesses” will be ruthlessly exploited in the court process to try and damage the credibility of the victim.
It is the harrowing nature of this process for the victim with the chance that the abuser will be found not guilty which causes police officers, social workers and prosecutors to agonise as to whether a prosecution will be in the victim’s best interests or indeed whether a prosecution can succeed given the way the court system works. Included in this consideration will be the fact that cases take many, many months to get to court.
There have been some changes made to the court process to make it a bit easier for victims giving evidence. There are proposals to enable victims to give pre-recorded evidence and to be cross examined by only one defence barrister. This will help but will not prevent many questions being asked about the lifestyle of the victim some of which others would consider have nothing to do with the facts of the case but just seek to destroy the character of that witness. Sadly, as we know some victims have committed suicide after such an experience. There are many cases that do not get near the court process because they just cannot get to the threshold of “beyond all reasonable doubt.”
The conviction rate for rape overall is about 10 per cent of all reported cases and so the question should be not what are we doing for this 10 per cent but what are we doing for the 90 per cent of other victims.
This can sometimes be interpreted as police officers not believing victims of rape and abuse but the issue is often not whether an officer believes the victim but whether they think a jury will believe the victim against this standard of “beyond all reasonable doubt.”
In my view there has been too much focus in success being seen as getting cases to court. This creates a mind-set that if a case has little prospect of getting to court and certainly where a victim does not support a prosecution then interest is lost in the case overall. Many victims are put off from seeking support because they fear they will be “persuaded” to go to court when they feel that the court process will not solve the problem in their lives. There needs to be a far greater balance in favour of protection of the victim rather than prosecution of the offender.
Protection in these cases can only be provided if all the agencies involved work in a fundamentally different way. In Greater Manchester, all the public services recognise that most of the people who need our protection and care have a complex set of needs and are part of wider families who themselves have complex needs. Many of these families have many years of chronic dependency, constant interactions with the public services and the same patterns of behaviour repeating themselves. They take up a large proportion of the public spend but often this spend is not solving their problems. We are developing new ways of working which put teams of staff from the different agencies working in the same office sharing information on a daily basis to make sure there is a joined up strategy to protect vulnerable people and look at the issues for the whole family. This is the best way to try and ensure children have the best upbringing that problems are identified early and it is less likely we will young people vulnerable to abusers in the future.
The past week has been difficult for police officers and social workers and I am sure many have shouted at the radio or television as they feel that much of the coverage just does not recognise the complexities of the job they do and the real difficulties they face working in deprived communities often with families and individuals with chaotic lifestyles and long term histories of need. I can understand why many journalists and commentators do not appreciate this as often these communities are hidden and I myself only have an understanding of this because of the job I do and the opportunities I get to go out on the front line.
The problem with this atmosphere is that it will get more and more difficult to attract the best people into social work or to get police officers who want to get involved in child protection work. It also means that social workers and police officers “play safe” and don’t show the degree of innovation and imagination needed to succeed in this work and in particular what is needed to capture determined abusers. A siege mentality develops where public servants strive to do their best but feel unappreciated and undervalued by the society around them. It is not that social workers and police officers do not appreciate what life is like in deprived communities rather that they understand it too well.
And what about the race issue? Some have said that the reason this issue has not been confronted was because of fear of being labelled racist as many of the abusers in these cases are Asian men. I have never been convinced of this argument but rather feel it is easier to talk about the race issue than the more complex issues of the care system and the court system. I do think that there are some fundamental issues about the rights of women in our society that some minority cultures need to confront but on the other hand the levels of domestic violence in this country suggest that we all need to confront this issue. I also think there are some issues about the licensing of taxi drivers and take away premises which need to be reviewed as these have featured in a number of CSE cases. At the end of the day abuse is about criminality and we need to focus on the criminals and seek them out rather than label whole communities.
There is much more that I could say. The risk is that the current hiatus about Rotherham will fizzle out quickly to be replaced by another news story and while outrage will have been vented the fundamental policy issues involved will not have been confronted.
For me these fundamental issues are:
- Clearer guidance and research on the whole issue of children in care and the criteria when secure accommodation is to be used
- The creation of a network of “safe houses ” which young people at risk of abuse or who keep running away could use knowing their own welfare would be the primary concern
- The creation of a legal process which police officers and other professionals could access which would provide immediate protection for a vulnerable child or immediate control of a suspected abuser without the need for a conviction or charge beforehand.
- A clear statement that the prime duty of a police force is the protection of vulnerable people and long term measures to reduce the level of abuse and that this should take precedence over property crime.
- A radical realignment of public services in line with the troubled families initiative to create local teams of professionals from the key caring agencies with a focus on reducing complex dependency and providing joined up strategies to protect vulnerable people.
- The promotion of the concept of British values to generate a wider debate about the rights of women and children in our society and its relation to cultural norms in minority communities and the impact of the increasing sexualisation of young people
Sir Peter Fahy,