Emma Williamson and Natasha Mulvihill, Centre for Gender and Violence Research
The report into the abuse and sexual exploitation of children and young people in Rotherham[i] whilst shocking, is not a surprise. The report comes in a long line of reports, inquiries, research, and reviews which are consistent in their findings. That victims have been ignored or not believed; that busy professionals have been unable (for a variety of reasons) to respond appropriately; that officials have not adequately prioritised the work of those on the front line; and that existing legislation is not being used even in cases where it could be, to tackle the sexual exploitation of children and young people.
As British actor Samantha Morton made clear in her recent interview, every incident of child sexual abuse is a life sentence for that individual, their families, and those around them.
As calls for yet another inquiry are made, maybe this is the time to take a different approach. A recent Parliamentary Select Committee Report, published in April 2014, concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that in terms of child sexual exploitation “justice cannot currently be served due to the lack of a specific offence”. The recommendation of this report was that “existing offences could be used more effectively”. Sheila Taylor, CEO of NWG Network, in recent news interviews and her own press release, highlighted how their organisation had compiled the recommendations from 16 recent relevant reports which resulted in up to 400 recommendations. The result, she suggests is that practitioners are overwhelmed, frustrated, and struggle to implement the findings from a report before a new one comes out. Ms Taylor suggests, and we would wholeheartedly agree with her, that maybe that money would be better spent on dedicated, ring fenced, services to implement the recommendations we already have and provide the much needed victim-focused services which are clearly needed.
Too often the response to inquiries, reviews, and reports by the time they come out, however damning, are that lessons have been learnt and changes made. The scandal which we need to face is why this keeps happening if lessons have been learnt? What happens in these areas when the glare of the media spotlight disappears and victims once again become the target of perpetrators whose behaviour society allows to go unchallenged?
Our recent evaluation of a specialist service working with young people at risk of sexual exploitation[ii] is that lessons haven’t been learnt. Austerity is impacting on the ability of statutory services, the police, social services, and youth services, to deal with the cases that fall onto their desks, let alone going out and finding what are hidden and difficult cases to deal with. Too often the services for those in need, as opposed to those where there is a statutory responsibility to intervene, are restricted, where they exist, to short term interventions. It beggars belief that commissioners think that someone being groomed for sexual exploitation would be identified, supported to recognise the abuse, and disclose that abuse in the 6 week support packages currently written into so many service contracts. Those being exploited need specialist support, over a long period of time, and for there to be coordinated responses between the police and support workers. All of that costs money which is increasingly difficult for local authorities and voluntary services to find.
Given the difficulties faced by service providers with ever increasing workloads and limited specialist service providers where they can send clients, it is not surprising that victims end up falling through the net. The vulnerabilities which perpetrators target victims for, are the same that allow agencies under pressure to perceive these victims as difficult and un-credible.
Rather than waste yet more money on an inquiry, the responses to which we have heard before, maybe the government and all political parties should commit to 10 years of ring fenced funding for the establishment of a national response. This should include specialist sexual exploitation workers to support victims in every area of the country and specialist dedicated police officers in those areas to use every law at their disposal to target perpetrators so it is their behaviour under the spotlight and not that of the victim. Where this has happened in local areas, real progress has been made. We need the same concerted effort nationally to tackle this problem.
The authors can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com
This blog was originally posted on the PolicyBristol blog.
[i] Jay, A. (2014) Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham 1997 – 2013. Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council.
[ii] Mulvihill, N. and Williamson, E. (2014) An Evaluation of the GDVSAP Trafficking and Grooming Project, Gloucester, UK. Bristol: Centre for Gender and Violence Research, University of Bristol.