What can Scotland learn from Rotherham? Sarah Nelson draws very clear conclusions from the Rotherham report - in what it tells us about the attitudes held by authority figures towards vulnerable young people and why guidance to identify victims of child sexual abuse has been ignored.
Since last week’s publication of Alexis Jay’s explosive report, which found that at least 1400 children had been sexually exploited in Rotherham over 16 years, there have been repeated claims that “political correctness” caused failure to prosecute the perpetrators, mainly men of Pakistani heritage. Alleged fears of being thought racist or of stirring racial conflict have been seized upon by some politicians and commentators, to suggest this proves a wider failure of multicultural policies in Britain.
But while such fears were one factor for some staff and councillors in the prolonged inaction, were they the key issue? The police after all prosecute Asian suspects over other offences, such as drugs or suspected terrorism. Hugh Muir in the Guardian, highlighting that minority ethnic people are over-represented in prisons and the courts, concluded sarcastically: “if authorities didn’t use their powers against minorities for fear of giving offence... it would be a first.
“If a backlash was feared, where would it have come from? There is no minority lobby for criminals and paedophiles. So long as communities knew the issue was one of law enforcement rather than an assault on those communities themselves, they would have supported tough action by the authorities” (as they did in London over gun crime).
Thus in attempting to learn lessons from these distressing events, we need to ask what was different about this particular crime, and whether the principal answer lay not in the perpetrators but the victims. Were they not considered worth protecting, nor worth risking community tensions?
Many in the police and social care, even the public witnessing grooming “in plain sight”, seemed to share the abusers’ derogatory view of these vulnerable girls, who were often already in care, under supervision through previous abuse or neglect, or otherwise vulnerable. Some were “difficult”, reacting to harm with chaotic or desperate acting-out behaviours. But they were also just children.
Despite Professor Jay describing brutality, callousness and exceptional violence towards girls as young as 11, she found “the police gave no priority to child sex exploitation, regarding many child victims with contempt”......Hilary Willmer, colleague of a Home Office researcher whose 2002 report on CSE was suppressed, said the authorities responded that the "girls had chosen this lifestyle to feed their drug habit...the perception (was) that these were errant teenagers who were just a nuisance...(that) they are going out with these men, and have almost got what they asked for.”
Such attitudes were unearthed in every recent child sexual exploitation scandal. Sara Rowbotham of the NHS crisis intervention team in Rochdale, who had fruitlessly referred more than 100 girls to social services, told MPs “It was attitudes towards teenagers. It was absolute disrespect that vulnerable young people did not have a voice. They were overlooked. They were discriminated against. They were treated appallingly by protective services."
Why did authorities continue for more than a decade to flout laws and guidance which clearly stated that children involved in “prostitution” should be treated as victims, as children in need, and their coercers prosecuted? Why, as Alexis Jay revealed in Rotherham, did they also continue to ignore worrying local reports, years of training and publicity on the issue?
Feminist columnist Suzanne Moore saw links with wider treatment of women in her harsh conclusion: “The macho environment in which the girls were not listened to, or even seen as children, is part of a continuum of thought in which girls, once deemed sexually active, even if it is against their will, are seen as damaged goods. Thus they can be bought and sold in a market that has made it apparent it no longer considers them worth protecting”.
Also influential, given that boys who become involved in child sexual exploitation also face dismissal as “delinquent”, is the persistent failure by authorities and communities to recognise behaviours which many of these young people exhibit as the consequence of past abuse, or present sexual exploitation: not as an invitation to it. Running away, school truancy and exclusions, apparent “promiscuity” through confused sexual boundaries and a sense of debasement, substance misuse to blot out the trauma (or through abusers creating addiction); anger and rage, extreme distrust of authority following betrayal: these have been listed for decades in child protection guidelines and training, and discovered time and again through research.
A massive awareness-raising programme for professionals and communities focussing on this very point, and using direct testimony from young people, may need to be instigated if these derogatory attitudes are finally to be uprooted and further child sexual exploitation scandals prevented. For professionals, that programme needs to include painful reflective work on why they ignored information about children’s reactions to abuse, which was widely available for decades.
Finally, given that these scandals so far have been English, can we be complacent about child sexual exploitation here in Scotland? The Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee carried out an Inquiry into child sexual exploitation in 2013. It heard from the National Working Group that estimates by Scottish agencies of likely child sexual exploitation victims ranged from 64 to 300 for each agency. The NWG found much concern about under-recognition of the issue, particularly in rural areas.
Strathclyde University’s CELCIS team concluded from its case study research that provisionally, “a prevalence of child sexual exploitation at least approaching 25% (one in four) would seem likely for children in the care population. ... we expect this to be considerably higher for older age groups, for girls and for children placed in residential care.”
In February 2013 Scottish police established Operation Dash to scope the extent of child sexual exploitation in the 12 local authorities of the (then) Strathclyde Police force area, working closely with Barnardo’s, and its work continues.
Everyone concerned with the welfare of vulnerable young people in Scotland will hope that in their attitudes to our most troubled teenagers, the authorities will now choose respect and understanding above contempt.
Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham 1997 – 2013. Alexis Jay OBE. Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, 2014.
The Scottish Parliament, Public Petitions Committee. The 1st Report, 2014 (Session 4): Report on tackling child sexual exploitation in Scotland: SP Paper 449; PU/S4/14/R1.