The report by Ann Coffey into Child Sexual Exploitation is a very good piece of work and worth reading. She is clear that this issue is one not only for all agencies but for wider society. She is clear that GMP has improved its response but that the problem is far more complex than the police can solve on their own. Of course this did not stop some sections of the media merely focussing on the police contribution.
Runaway children are not just a Greater Manchester issue but one that affects every part of the country and indeed every part of the world. The report highlights however that children who are in care make up a huge proportion of the reports the police receive. This is not surprising in that the reason many children are in care is because they have had troubled upbringings and have had to suffer the trauma of being taken away from their parents or being abandoned by them. Many people seem surprised by the sheer number of reports of missing children that the police deal with, but this is the reality of the situation we face.
There are more than 200 children’s homes across Greater Manchester, with quite a number who take in children from other parts of the country. The fact that young people run away is not because the care is not good, but because running away is often a symptom of deeply rooted problems in their lives and the isolation of being in care.
All parents at some point face the challenge of a child or young person who does not want to do what they are told, and, in seeking more freedom or peer approval, put themselves at risk. This may exhibit itself in wanting to be out late at night, to congregate with mates in parks or on street corners , or to meet up with people that the parent or carer does not view as suitable.
Parents will try reasoning and negotiation, may get to a point where they have to exert greater control and in some cases they may be driven to physically stopping their child going out. The care worker in a children’s home is in no different a position apart from the fact that the child they are dealing with may have particular problems of low self-esteem and risky behaviour which brought them into care in the first place, and are only allowed to use physical restraint in the most extreme of circumstances. The amount of care homes and the frequency of reports of missing children are just an indicator of a much broader issue of the number of vulnerable children in the country who are not thriving and who have had bad starts in life.
Running away puts young people in a particularly dangerous position as the report points out. An area like Greater Manchester has many late night venues and takeaways, with easy transport links and a vast concentration of people – some who are only intent on harm. Combined with an increasingly sexualised society – where extreme images are readily available online, and where young girls in particular are conditioned to see themselves as sexual objects – and this increases the danger even further.
The report has some powerful testimonies of how some young women view themselves and their relationships with men, and how some young lads seem to think they need to be controlling or abusive to get respect. There are then older men who have blurred the divide between young girls and young women, and don’t understand the nature of consent and respect. These people are abusers and exploiters who need to be challenged and wherever possible – convicted.
Some of the publicity has pointed out the gap between the number of sexual offences we record and the number of convictions. Well the first thing to say is that we know that sexual offences are very significantly under-reported, so in effect the gap is even greater. Ann Coffey’s report points out the real complexity of investigating these offences and some of the attitudes prevalent in the criminal justice system; some of which the police have been guilty of in the past. She is careful again to say that sadly these are attitudes prevalent in wider society which then feeds into the jury system and then makes prosecutors cautious of taking cases forward for fear of how the victim will be viewed. She points out some of the awful experiences that victims have had in court when as she describes how they are confronted by bullying behaviour by defence barristers. She calls for consideration of a different way of presenting this sort of evidence in the court process, which is more of a search for the truth, rather than a battle between two different sides, with the victim caught in the middle.
There will always be aspects that GMP needs to continue to improve upon and a key starting point is looking at basic attitudes and ensuring that we recognise the vulnerability in many of the young people we come across on the street, and in particular those who constantly run away. As with domestic violence it so important we recognise the power of an abusive relationship and the way it destroys the self-esteem and self-control of the victim and how so many victims do not identify themselves as such. We need to be proactive in seeking out places where young people are particularly vulnerable to being targeted by abusers such as late night food places, transport hubs and those quieter places young people like to gather, We need to do all we can to challenge harassment such as what is experienced by some girls leaving schools. However, this is a huge task given the ground we have to cover and that is why Ann Coffey makes it clear that it is not just the job of the police alone.
GMP is also playing its part in trying to deal with the underlying issues of why there are so many vulnerable young people who don’t get the right start in life. The Troubled Families initiative is working with hundreds, if not thousands of families across Greater Manchester that have histories of poor school attendance, chronic health issues, domestic violence and drug and alcohol use. We know that these aspects can often create the conveyor belt which takes a child from a lack of love, care and affection in early years to disruptive behaviour, doing poorly at school, exclusion and involvement with social services, leading to risky behaviour and vulnerability. On every borough we will have a multi-agency team working on all vulnerability issues, sharing information day to day and deciding who is the best professional or service to deal with a particular case.
There has been much discussion about the need for officers to recognise vulnerability and to be able to engage and generate confidence with victims and potential victims. Many of our officers are very good at this but we have to recognise that this is extremely complex – that is why social workers receive three years’ university training to give them the skills to recognise the factors at play and the underlying psychological causes.
We have to give children and young people the right help at the right time. We have to question at what point the police officer ends and the social worker begins.
Sir Peter Fahy