Sexual exploitation, the misunderstood crime

Agencies blamed for not believing victims of abuse Photo: ITV Granada
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This report highlights what a misunderstood crime sexual exploitation is and the terrible damage that is done to young lives when professionals fail to act to protect them from it.

It follows the trial earlier this year in Rochdale in which nine men were jailed for the rape and abuse of 5 girls. But the report shows that the trial was only part of a wider problem of sexual exploitation in the town. A problem that was ignored for too long by professionals paid to protect the children who came to them asking for help.

In 2007 for example, 47 girls were known to the council to be either sexually exploited or at risk of sexual exploitation. Fifteen of them were in care. By 2010 that number had risen to 79.

This report does not mention the issue of race which so dominated some of the coverage of the case, as all but one of the defendants were of Asian origin.

Nor does it talk about children in care in particular, who it is known are often targeted by criminals looking for vulnerable girls to exploit.

What it does focus on are the councils own failings. The report states that "crucially frontline managers in children's social care did not consistently recognise or understand the nature of sexual exploitation of children and young people."

Time and again, we read in the report that one of the girls in the trial sought help from social workers and police and that time and again her calls went unneeded.

The report pays tribute to her courage and determination. Without her, the case may never have come to court and this report - setting out ways to improve child services - may never have been written.

What is particularly tragic is that it appears some professionals considered the victims to be more like teenage rebels making bad life choices than as abused and frightened children.

Some believed the children were in "consensual sexual relationships". One mother told me a professional told her her 15 year old daughter was well on the way to becoming a prostitute.

The report looks for reasons for the failings.

  • It says that in 2007 sexual exploitation wasn't very well known about or understood.
  • It says that there wasn't enough joined up thinking between the agencies involved protecting the girls.
  • And it cites the case of Baby P, arguing that it had made social workers everywhere focus more on babies and toddlers - at the expense of adolescents.

The police and CPS also come in for criticism for failing to investigate the claims of the girls thoroughly. One parent I spoke to today told me that police had just treated her 13-year-old daughter as a rebellious runaway who was sexually active - rather than as the rape victim she was.

For years it seems professionals misunderstood the crime and missed the signs of the abuse. It was after all, only recently that official literature everywhere stopped using the term "child prostitute" in relation to young girls coerced into sex.

The Government's national guidelines published in 2009 have raised awareness of the crime, as has the work of the Children's commissioner and the Children's Society. Barnardos too have campaigned to remind those who will listen that "children cannot consent to their own abuse" as well as highlighting the low numbers of convictions in cases like these.

But there is still a long way to go.

Responding to the report, Deputy children's commissioner Sue Berelowitz said:

"We are far from surprised at therevelations of horrific acts of child sexual exploitation in today's reportfrom the Rochdale borough safeguarding children board.

"In our two-year inquiry into child sexual exploitation, we are continuingto uncover what is happening to far too many vulnerable children and youngpeople up and down the country.

"We reiterate the recommendation made to the Secretary of State forEducation in our July report on the sexual exploitation of children thatcalling children prostitutes is completely unacceptable and is stoppingprofessionals from seeing these children as victims who require protection.Children cannot consent to their own abuse.

"An interim report from the children's commissioner's inquiry will bepublished in November where, for the first time, we will bring a nationalperspective to these appalling acts against children.

"Most importantly, the interim report will give professionals solidevidence of the warning signs that should alert them that a child is at risk ofbeing sexually exploited. Acting on these warning signs is imperative.

"It is critical that statutory agencies listen to children when they tellpeople that they are being abused and that these allegations are takenextremely seriously. They have an absolute responsibility in law to protectchildren."

– Deputy children's commissioner Sue Berelowitz

Parents in Rochdale are angry that some of the professionals who failed to listen are still in their jobs. Some of the girls are beginning a legal process to sue the council. Other girls in other areas may follow. I know of at least one girl in Salford who has started a claim against that local authority.

Rochdale Children's Safeguarding Board have been at pains to examine their failings - and there are many. But they are determined to learn from them.

Their honesty in publishing this report should be applauded as there are other authorities, police forces and Children's Safe Guarding Boards who need to learn from their mistakes as well.

If this report from Rochdale Council helps others to examine how they too can better protect children from sexual exploitation, then some good may yet come out of the terrible failures of the past.

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