The Jay Report, which investigated abuse and sexual exploitation of children in the Rotherham area between 1997 and 2014, estimates over 1400 children have been victims. This is appalling. It is also an issue for the left.
It is an issue not just because the right-wing press have used it as an opportunity to print racist headlines, or just because the police have systematically blamed victims. Something else, and even more fundamental, is at stake. This case has demonstrated a basic lack of care for and understanding of some of the most vulnerable in society. It has shone a light on a system which failed children. We should care about this and have something to say about it.
The Jay Report criticised the whole system (the police, social services, schools) for a “lack of focus on outcomes for children”. The report finds time and time again that significant files were missing, decisions not followed through, and agencies not contacted. Investigations and reports in 2002, 2003 and 2006 brought to the attention of the council and social services a large issue with child sexual exploitation (CSE), particularly affecting vulnerable children. Despite this, people within social services continued to downplay the level or seriousness of abuse. One recent CSE subgroup concluded “agencies need to retain a sense of proportionality with regard to child sexual exploitation, as it only actually accounts for 2.3% of the Council’s safeguarding work in Rotherham. Although it is a very important issue, child neglect is a much more significant problem.”
Victims of CSE were consistently wrongly categorised as “out of control” or treated as cases of alcohol and/or drugs misuse; the specific issues of CSE were not taken seriously.
Consistent with police handling of rape in general, many of the cases show the police, and in some cases social services, disbelieved young girls. In one case an initial risk assessment blamed the girl for “putting herself at risk of sexual exploitation and danger”. In several cases police, on finding young girls with much older males, arrested young girls for being “drunk and disorderly”! Understandably many parents, family members and children themselves report losing all faith in the agencies involved.
The Daily Mail ran the headline “Betrayed by PC [politically correct] cowards” and the EDL are camped outside Rotherham police station calling for action against “Muslim grooming gangs”.
They have also called a national demonstration. We should mobilise against that.
Child sexual exploitation is not an issue of ethnicity. What happened in Rotherham is happening in other areas of the country; although there will be particular local circumstances, there will be a wide range of abusers and victims. The Jay Report cites the hesitancy of social workers and practitioners over reporting the ethnicity of abusers as Pakistani, for fear or being accused of racism. This is a problem. It points to a dishonest way of dealing with racism.
For many years Labour-led Rotherham council has relied upon tokenistic “multicultural events” and communicating almost exclusively with self-appointed “community leaders”, often religious ones rather than engaging and building strong links with communities.
This does not deal with racism in an open way; wrongly presumes the opinions of Muslim communities can and should be communicated by “community leaders”, and disenfranchises others.
For instance the council and social services ignored the possibility that abuse may be happening within the Pakistani community. An image was established of Pakistani men abusing white girls. In fact such abuse usually happens to those closest to the abuser. The under-reporting of abuse from minority ethnic victims is a problem.
The Jay inquiry spoke to Pakistani women’s groups from the area who stated categorically that the practice of communicating solely with “community leaders” disenfranchised them and prevented them tacking abuse within their community. One Pakistani women’s group described how Pakistani-heritage girls were targeted by taxi drivers and men waiting outside school gates. They also spoke of Pakistani landlords exploiting Pakistani women and children who were their tenants.
The only agency which appears to consistently provide good support and to follow up with children was Risky Business, a non-statutory youth work project.
Damningly, the Jay Report states that senior managers in Rotherham Social Services saw Risky Business as a “nuisance”. Perhaps that was because they took children and young people seriously...
Child sexual exploitation can happen anywhere. This is not an issue unique to Rotherham. Projects like Risky Business have probably ensured that the issue has come to light in Rotherham. In other areas we may just not know the scale of such abuse yet. In Rotherham we had a group of children put into a very vulnerable position by a combination of poverty, lack of opportunity, and families with mental and emotional health problems. These conditions are linked to social breakdown in working-class areas, the gutting of industry in the 1980s, and decades of mass unemployment. These exist in other places beside Rotherham.
The Jay Report found that domestic violence in the homes of children played a role in 46% of the cases, and parental mental health problems in 20% of cases. In a third of cases the victims of CSE had mental health problems and in two-thirds emotional health difficulties, most likely a combination of existing issues and ones caused by the abuse they suffered. Lack of access to mental health services was a recurrent theme.
Cycles of unemployment, lack of opportunity and low confidence led to the alienation of young children. It would be simplistic to say that was the sole issue, but their abusers exploited it. It also played a role in the perception of these children by police and social services. Society sees these children as part of an “underclass”, as “sluts”, “slags” and “out of control”. Very few of the “experts”, people who should have understood the precariousness of the children’s lives, behaved as if they understood.
We need to know why that was. Undoubtedly staff shortages and lack of money played a role.
In 2008 43% of jobs in Rotherham Social Services were not filled. Jobs were being covered by short-term agency staff. Staff reported being under huge pressure with the volume of cases being referred to social services, especially those involving CSE.
A big issue, a nationwide issue, is the level of bureaucracy within social services. A 2013 report by the charity Banardos found that “senior management were making heavy demands relating to performance management and data collection” This is easily recognisable by anyone working in social services, in schools or caring for vulnerable people; bureaucracy gets in the way of workers doing the job and ultimately hurts vulnerable people.
On the other hand at Risky Business, a smaller service, staff were much more in charge of what they did. It is no surprise that it responded much better to CSE cases.
Workers should be free from the sort of performance management bullshit that is used against them and gets in the way of doing their job. Socialists should oppose the use of time to pore over data solely used to massage management reports. Record keeping is important, but should directly help vulnerable people.
Accountability too is important. But it is a very different thing to “performance management”. Our unions should take on the fight against these things, as part of a program for creating services which are focused on the needs of and involving the working-class people who need help and support.
Unison, representing social workers and other staff in Rotherham, has released data from a workplace stress survey that shows 75% of respondents thinking bullying was a serious issue, resulting in 33% having had time off work due to stress. Many had complained about dangerously high case loads, according to Unison’s regional secretary.
He added “Instead of treating the clients that they are seeing as human beings, they are being treated as numbers, and that can lead to bad decision-making so they feel pressurised just to turn the clients through a mill, and that’s not what social work is all about.”
The bottom line here is that everywhere, a minority of abusive men, often involved in criminal gangs, will look for vulnerable children to prey on. If the system does not believe children who report abuse, regards children who are sexually active as “sluts”, and does not trust trained workers or give them the resources they need, it will continue to fail vulnerable children.