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How senior officials downplayed the 'ethnic dimension'

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Publication of the independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham resulted in much debate about the perceived inaction of officials due to the ethnicity of perpetrators.

Home secretary Theresa May highlighted “institutionalised political correctness” as being among the council’s failings.

Despite the majority of perpetrators being described as “Asian” by victims, Professor Alexis Jay’s report found councillors did not engage directly with the borough’s Pakistani-heritage community to discuss how best to address the issue. Some councillors seemed to think any abuse case was a “one-off”. In fact, an estimated 1,400 children were sexually exploited between 1997 and 2013.

The report found no evidence that children’s social care staff in Rotherham were influenced by the ethnic origins of suspected perpetrators when dealing with individual child protection cases. There was, however, “a widespread perception that messages conveyed by some senior people in the council and also the police, were to ‘downplay’ the ethnic dimensions of CSE [child sexual exploitation]”, according to the report.

This led frontline staff to be confused as to “what would be interpreted as ‘racist’.”

Some staff in children’s services said they were advised by managers “to be cautious about referring to the ethnicity of the perpetrators” when writing case reports. While senior officers said ethnic considerations did not influence their decisions, several involved in the operational management of services reported “some attempts to pressurise them into changing their approach to some issues”, particularly support given to Pakistani-heritage women fleeing domestic violence.

Agencies placed too much reliance on traditional leaders, such as elected members and imams, which, Pakistan-heritage community women told the inquiry, was a barrier to people coming forward to talk about CSE. Representatives of women’s groups expressed frustration that interpretations of the area’s problems with CSE were often based on the assumption similar abuse did not take place within their own community and so concentrated mainly on young white girls. The report recommended the town’s child safeguarding board should address the under-reporting of exploitation and abuse in minority ethnic communities as a priority.

Professor Jay’s report said the issue of race “should be tackled as an absolute priority if it is known to be a significant factor in the criminal activity of organised abuse in any local community”, but there was “little evidence” of such action in Rotherham in the earlier years. Several councillors believed opening up these issues could “be ‘giving oxygen’ to racist perspectives” that might attract extremist political groups.

Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, said the issue in Rotherham was not ethnicity but child protection and the fact “no one was listening” to children.

“We mustn’t let any concerns about the particular circumstances of adults, whether it’s about ethnicity or their power in terms of politics or their celebrity or fame, to distract us from doing what we need to do to protect children,” he added.

Professor Jones said community cohesion was built by having everybody understanding the welfare of children has priority and if any community is seen to be “kicking back against that” it had to be challenged. He said that when there were claims of physical punishment in madrasas in other communities, consistent challenging by the authorities that such behaviour was unacceptable tackled the situation and attracted the attention of community leaders, who became “champions” in addressing it themselves.

As the report stated, there is “no simple link between race and CSE”, and the greatest number of perpetrators in the UK are white men. “I think the focus [on ethnicity] is necessary but the way it’s been covered is unhelpful because it gets away from the idea the overwhelming majority of abuse is around the family [whether a parent, relative or family friend],” said Winston Morson, an independent social work manager and member of the College of Social Work.

He called for “an active focus” from councils on child sexual exploitation. While children’s social work usually operates on a referrals system, he said an outreach approach could help identify victims, especially considering many of those abused in Rotherham had not come to the attention of social services in other ways.

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