Care professionals failed to question prevailing social attitudes that the girls abused in Oxfordshire were ‘difficult’ and ‘undeserving’. Tackling this requires better training and support, not prosecution
It is regrettable that the aspect of the government’s response to the shocking disclosures about child sexual exploitation in Oxfordshire that has got most attention is the intention to make it possible to prosecute social workers, police and other professionals for “wilful neglect” where it appears they have not acted on child abuse.
While this has obvious populist appeal it distracts us from the real issues. The complexities of how abused children’s experiences appear to professionals and of dealing with the exploitative tactics of gangs of offenders are such that it is highly unlikely that a charge of “wilful” neglect could ever be proven.
The tone of the Oxfordshire serious case review is altogether different from the government’s. It is a wise, insightful report that carefully and sympathetically analyses why it was that despite professional involvement, teenage girls were subjected to horrific sexual and physical abuse by a gang of at least seven men. It concludes that over many years professionals “on the ground worked relentlessly (if not always effectively) to fulfil their professional duties” and that ultimately it was their observations and persistence which brought the child sexual exploitation into the open. However, scores of professionals and organisations misread the signs and acted in ways that the victims and their families experienced as callous and indifferent.
Professional ignorance was central to what went wrong. I worked in social work at a time in the 1980s when child sexual abuse was barely recognised. By the 1990s major breakthroughs had occurred, levels of reporting increased and it felt like a good understanding of the dynamics of grooming, secrecy and the impact of sexual abuse had been established. The horrific disclosures in Oxfordshire,Rotherham and elsewhere are humbling. Professionals have been clueless in the face of the organised barbarism perpetrated on young women by groups of men. The Oxfordshire report describes how one girl was punished by being taken to a wood and raped by seven men. Left alone, hurt, crying and naked, the person she called for help was not her parents, social worker, police or an ambulance but one of the abusers who had just raped her.
Despite having been groomed, controlled and violated in ways that left them with no capacity to say “no” and with a fear-based loyalty to their abusers, the serious case review concludes that they were seen by professionals as “very difficult girls making bad choices”.
The perpetrators did not operate in a cultural vacuum. They tapped into the cruelly oppressive social attitudes that are typical towards children in, or on the edge of, care. Their victims were from troubled families who are despised within political discourse as “chavs”, “welfare scroungers” and “the undeserving”. It is their vulnerability and social positioning as morally inferior objects of disgust that makes gangs of abusers target them and professionals blame them.
In the Oxfordshire report, the familiar finding of a “lack of curiosity and rigour” by professionals who had the wrong “mindset” was a central failing. It is vital that multi-agency training and ongoing supervision help professionals learn about both the impact of abusers’ tactics and the complex dynamics that can wear down their own compassion and judgment, so that they can avoid blaming and giving up on abused children.
Change must occur from the top down, prejudice must be eliminated and workers given the skills and knowledge required to help very challenging children and families. If change doesn’t happen agencies must be held accountable, through staff performance reviews that already exist and by forced resignations at the top of organisations, as happened in Rotherham.
Once again we have been shamed into recognition of the limits of our capacity to understand and act humanely in the face of the brutality perpetrated on children. For genuine learning to occur professionals need support. Nothing must detract from the real issues and hard work required if children are to be adequately protected.