Government has published a new action plan for tackling child sexual exploitation, including an extension of the wilful neglect offence to children’s social care, education and elected members where people have been found to have failed in their duty to take action in respect of cases of abuse and neglect.
The announcement of the CSE action plan coincided with the publication of the report on the Serious Case Review in Oxfordshire that dealt with cases of child sexual exploitation for which a group of perpetrators are now serving long periods of imprisonment.
Terrible failures in practice in Oxfordshire
There is no question that the SCR identifies some terrible failures in practice in Oxfordshire and some distressing attitudes and behaviours towards girls who were being systematically abused. The SCR report concludes that CSE could have been identified and prevented earlier, and that being the case, it must mean that children might have been spared some of their appalling experiences. But the SCR report also says that it found “…no evidence of wilful professional neglect or misconduct by organisations, but there was at times a worrying lack of curiosity and follow through, and much work should have been considerably different and better.”
And, as noted above, whilst the report identified a wide range of failures in practice, the SCR goes out of its way to ensure that these are seen in the context of what was known about relevant practice at the time, and it also recognises the efforts made by a number of individual practitioners to secure better protection for the children involved.
Offence of wilful neglect
It is therefore a little ironic that the report was published just as the Prime Minister made his commitment – in launching the Government’s new plan for tackling CSE – to extend the offence of wilful neglect to situations such as these, with the announcement presumably timed to coincide with the publication of the Oxfordshire SCR report.
Whilst one can understand the desire to hold individuals to greater account, particularly in the light of some of the behaviours and attitudes uncovered in Rotherham, and, now in Oxfordshire, it seems to me that such a move is truly fraught with difficulty, if the aim is, as it should be, to learn the lessons from the past, and secure better practice in the future.
That’s because, unlike say, withholding nourishment in a hospital setting where a clear consequence can be easily seen by a member of staff, the effect of action or inaction in relation to CSE can seldom, if ever, be so simple to predict, and the burden of proof will therefore require a quite different test.
Difficulties with tackling CSE
But there are other difficulties with tackling CSE that may not be better handled if individuals feel under threat of prosecution. The clearest is that a safety-first approach will always be adopted. And that may mean a much greater recourse to place of safety measures and restrictions on the activities of the children involved, because it will be seen as the only way of guaranteeing their protection.
And, of course, it will undoubtedly make it even easier to persuade professionals to work in a field where decisions are not easy to make, where their consequences are not subject to any exact science (except through the exercise of hindsight), and where the public also seems to be able to hold a contradictory view that the system is, at one and the same time, too ready to act, and too slow to respond.
But my main reason for using some of the content from our Special Report on the action plan and the SCR in this blog is because, alongside the criticisms, the SCR also uncovered some beacons of good practice with often junior staff showing great initiative in pursuing more effective protection for children in Oxfordshire.
The following quote, in particular, caught my eye, because it shows how such staff could see what was happening – and put into words the dangers, confirmed in the SCR – that the girls concerned were seen primarily in terms of their troublemaking rather than as vulnerable children subject to serious abuse.
It was in a note from the Police’s Missing Persons (Mispers) Coordinator in 2006 to a number of senior officers, including her DCI and some Superintendents, which sought further action:
“The sad thing is, is that I’m not at all shocked or surprised at this lack of response as both girls appear to be labelled – repeat Mispers, Streetwise, too much trouble, not worth the effort of finding them as they will run off again…The staff at [the children’s home] give plenty of information as to the vulnerability of these girls and I don’t know what more can be done to ensure that these vulnerable Mispers are treated as a priority enquiry until one of them is found dead!… I know that you share my concern about these girls and I apologise for sounding off but I would like some help in both raising awareness and to try to track the people responsible for abusing these girls on a regular basis. Thanks for your time.”
By Jim Kennedy, editor of CareKnowledge. You can read more from Jim here