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Culture change needed to tackle child sex abuse

Source: Public Sector Executive Oct/Nov 2014

John Cameron, head of the NSPCC helpline, discusses the need for a culture change in the way government, local authorities and agencies tackle sex abuse and exploitation.

The shocking report by Professor Alexis Jay that found that more than 1,400 young people were intimidated, sexually exploited and deeply harmed in Rotherham over a 16-year period has had a huge impact, but has also highlighted the challenge faced by society in keeping children safe from abuse.

The study also revealed a ‘collective blindness’ to the suffering of children at senior political and officer leadership level in the South Yorkshire town. Following the release of the Jay report, council leader Roger Stone stepped down immediately.

He was then followed by the authority’s chief executive Martin Kimber, then Shaun Wright, the South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner (PCC) who was the councillor responsible for children’s services in Rotherham between 2005 and 2010, left after a few weeks of intense pressure.

Joyce Thacker, Rotherham council’s director of children’s services, was the last senior manager to leave her job following the scandal (more on page 27).

Regaining public confidence

Speaking to PSE about Rotherham and the lessons that can be learned, John Cameron, head of the helpline at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), said: “It is right and proper that people have considered their positions, but what we’ve got to do in these types of circumstances is make sure that public confidence isn’t entirely shattered.

“It’s a big worry. People in Rotherham, for example, might say the whole of social services are rotten to the core. That’s not the case, and there have been significant improvements in Rotherham’s services across recent years. We’ve got to make sure that the public have confidence in those agencies that are supporting their children or other children in the community.”

Councils need robust senior managers and a strong message; one of “we know there is a problem; we know what the problem is; we are working on it; and this is the way forward because we are going to drive service excellence”.

Closer working with outside agencies like the NSPCC, as has happened in Rotherham, can make it easier for people to come forward and report abuse anonymously and confidentially.

“For senior managers to work with other agencies is an important way of demonstrating openness and transparency,” said Cameron. “The comments I have made about Rotherham apply to other authorities as well; I know that a number of senior managers are looking at the lessons learned from Rotherham and are making sure that they have got very good practices in place.

“Social work is one of the most demanding jobs and sectors around, especially in children’s services, and there is an expectation that social workers and police officers should never fail. But managing risk, by definition, is a risky business and it takes a very strong personality to be able to manage and work in that type of environment.

“There is a lot of good practice going on, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t develop that practice and strive for continual evolution and improvement on quality.”

Complex matter

Cameron stated that child sexual exploitation is a very complex matter and Rotherham has illustrated how sexual exploitation is beginning to change.

“Rotherham highlighted that child sexual exploitation is becoming more organised, with groups of men grooming and procuring children,” he said. “They not only abuse them for self-gratification, but for financial gain, by forcing them into prostitution. In terms of police and social care operations, it clearly highlights the complexity, and the manner in which it is well organised means that you’ve got to have excellent working relationships between police and children’s services.”

PSE was told that councils must not only challenge the criminality but also offer support to the victims. Rotherham highlighted just how many victims were not listened to, and that official culture has to change to one where children have a voice and are taken seriously.

That official culture must be open to realising that children can be victims even when they don’t present as such because their behaviour seems confusing, unreliable and contradictory.

“The challenge is engaging with young children in the future, particularly some of those very hard-to-reach young people who are victims of sexual abuse,” said Cameron. “And that means we’ve got to be far more proactive in reaching out and trying to identify those children. That requires not a light touch, but quite a heavy touch, and ongoing, therapeutic intervention and support.

“The nature of the damage that it creates, in these particular instances, means you need a lot of ongoing support.”


The Jay report also found that, at times, even when frontline staff raised concerns in Rotherham, those were not acted on – allowing devastating child sexual exploitation to go unchallenged.

Cameron stated that, on the whole, there are a lot of dedicated social workers out there who’re very committed to doing their very best for children. But one of the biggest issues facing them is with regards to resources.

“Children’s services and the police are under-resourced at the moment, which is a major issue,” he said. “You have to have in place a system [where senior managers] recognise the demands on frontline workers, and how they’re going to reasonably support them from a resource position.

“We’re all realistic about the fiscal difficulties for local authorities and police services across the UK. But you either commit to services or – what are the consequences if you don’t?”

Senior managers must drive culture changes that ensure frontline team leaders, social workers and police officers can and must report any concerns, he said.

“Sexual abuse always needs to be fully investigated, whatever community it is occurring in. Cultural sensitivities should never stand in the way of protecting children.”

He added: “There needs to be a culture that says ‘you must pursue the protection of children irrespective of the background and history of the victim and irrespective of the background and history of the perpetrator as well’. People need to be freely able to undertake the very best child protection practice without political interference.”

Agencies must invest in training for social workers and police officers to help them identify, manage, intervene and support children who are subjected to child sexual exploitation.

A criminal offence of ignoring abuse

The NSPCC says it should be a criminal offence to cover-up, conceal or ignore known abuse, and that all professionals working with children should be required to report or face sanctions – but this must also be matched by a willingness to act.

The charity wants all councils to adopt best practice steps, such as the Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s ‘See Me Hear Me framework’.

But it must be backed by stronger action from Local Safeguarding Children Boards to scrutinise and challenge and hold local leaders to account. It is not enough to have training plans, policies and procedures in place – these must live beyond the page and change the way services operate.

“In the case of Rotherham, it is important we get those strong messages out to all communities that this type of behaviour is totally unacceptable,” said Cameron.

“It is about changing attitudes, and how men view women, and how men in certain sections of communities view certain girls.

“We offer the only national helpline for children in distress. ChildLine provides a confidential, safe place for any child to turn when they are in trouble. We are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week to help children. We will always listen, particularly when no-one else will.

“Our national adult helpline also provides a place for adults to come when they are worried about possible sexual abuse of children. This too is available 24 hours a day.”

Calls to the charity’s adult helpline have doubled in the last four years as public awareness of the extent of abuse has increased. And calls have increased even further in the aftermath of Rotherham.

“We must now ensure there is never a repeat of this truly distressing and depressing saga by taking action as soon as suspicions of child abuse are raised,” concluded Cameron.

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