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Our approach to Rotherham must amount to more than 'never again'

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Two issues shocked to the public about Rotherham. The first was that victims and parents were willing to name perpetrators, but many perpetrators were not arrested and fewer still brought to trial. The second is that some children were known to be sexually exploited but were still not protected (by children’s services among others). 

It is clear that many parts of the criminal justice system need to change to resolve the first problem, not just the police. And to resolve the second problem, we must find more effective ways to engage with young people who are unable to escape exploitative situations. Child protection and “the care system” are not built to do this.

The Jay report occasioned a media-fuelled “moral panic” that contributed to a narrative of systemic failure in child protection. This is completely unjustified by any objective comparison of safeguarding services in England with their international counterparts. 

This panic affects the behaviour of politicians and regulators not only because they must be seen to respond to restore public confidence but also because they can easily become targets themselves. It is no surprise that under the new Ofsted inspection framework, nearly 70% of councils “require improvement” or are “inadequate”. This is the only judgment that can protect Ofsted if a problem emerges in a recently inspected council.

The particular focus of the nature of abuse in Rotherham is a compelling argument for a local response.  We need to deal with particular communities of abusers and particular communities of victims, and name them. Sexual exploitation in the Catholic church, independent schools, children’s residential homes and among Asian taxi drivers in Rotherham require very different responses. However, all have common features – how (mostly) men behave when they are in a position to take sexual advantage of vulnerable people including children (and justify this to themselves); and also about how young people (mostly women) accept this abuse as normal. In all cases, sexual exploitation was accepted as normal and also “learnt” by new abusers and abused people, so was perpetuated over time.

We must remember that most instances of sexual exploitation considered in multi-agency panels do not involve groups of men. Children are more at risk of abuse in their own home than from relative strangers. 

The Jay report is very specific to local authorities. From the 1974 Maria Colwell report onwards, all reports and serious case reviews have uncovered the problems at the interstices between organisations and professions. I recall Dame Denise Platt, the former chair of the Commission for Social Care Inspection, several years ago asking after another serious child care tragedy: “Why do we all keep making the same mistakes?” This still rings true. It is too simplistic and too human to hone in and blame one organisation or one profession. We need perhaps a different mindset to be able to deal with the complexity of these multi-agency, multi-professional issues. Perhaps an entirely different approach is required. 

Dame Denise’s question also requires a more sophisticated answer which Eileen Munro, who led the Department for Education’s review of child protection, and others have sketched out. All plane crashes have the same basic causes  a hidden design flaw; pilot error; poor maintenance; poor security; poor weather conditions – but no one expects these causes to be eliminated. When a plane crashes it is almostinevitable that the cause will be a familiar one. This is not failure. Similarly, when things go wrong in child protection, it will also be for familiar reasons. What we must expect is that the rate of accident or failure reduces because risks are better managed.   

In the period following Haringey LBC’s child protection scandals, there was a palpable sense of zero tolerance. Unrealistic reassurances were made that “it will never happen again” and we are invited to respond in this way after Rotherham. In fact Haringey provides a different lesson. A recent book reviewing the death of Peter Connelly by Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, came to the conclusion that the two agencies that failed Peter most significantly were the police and NHS. However, in the atmosphere of the time, the focus was on the council’s children’s services and the real lessons were invisible and not learnt. We need to avoid that mistake this time.

Those of us in local government occupy a political space and there has been a particular focus on governance questions both in Rotherham and in Birmingham schools in relation to the Trojan Horse affair. When the media referred to South Yorkshire’s ex-police and crime commissioner (who had been Rotherham MBC’s cabinet member for children’s services) as the “former boss of children’s services”, it gave a confusing message to politicians. Officers and members have different roles and there is a danger of muddying that understanding. The safety of all citizens is the primary function of the local “state”. All other issues are of a lesser consideration. We need crystal clarity about who does what in this area; there is a risk it could become more opaque.

None of us are in any doubt that the seriousness of the events in Rotherham (and beyond) will wash over the whole system. To those not involved in this sort of work, the shock factor will be profound. To those already steeped in wrestling with seriously damaging and damaged people, it will remind us what can happen when we don’t make our whole system operate with the utter ruthless focus it requires. If we accept we exist to protect vulnerable individuals from harm as much as we possibly can, we must vigorously challenge anyone who views other considerations as somehow being above that absolute core principle. 

Jim Graham is chief executive of Warwickshire CC, Jan Britton is chief executive of Sandwell MBC. They are both members of the West Midlands Children’s Services Improvement Board

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