This week, the BBC screened Three Girls, a harrowing three-part programme about the battle for justice for victims of the Rochdale child grooming case. It tells the sickening story of sustained abuse and the reaction of authorities that, in failing to believe them and act, abandoned the girls to their suffering. Viewers might have found it hard hitting as a drama – but it was all the more sickening because it was based on facts. This actually happened. And not only to three girls.
One of the most distressing moments of the whole series was its ending, when a list of local authorities where cases of child abuse have been prosecuted across the country faded onto screen – 36 in all. Child sexual exploitation (CSE) and abuse has happened right across the country, for many years, and to thousands of girls. It is suffering on a huge scale – suffering for which society must accept full responsibility.
Also this week, a report dropped through my letterbox, written by Norman Wells of the Family Education Trust. Titled Unprotected, it examines some of the serious case reviews which have finally got to the root of the CSE crisis. The report analyses the complex reasons for the abuse but also asks whether society is heeding the worrying messages that these case reviews reveal.
The report is structured in three sections. The first considers the evidence from 7 serious case reviews around the country, together with the Independent Enquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham. The analysis shows that the means of exploitation are as varied as their occurrences – some are organised, as a result of grooming. Some are opportunistic. Others involve ‘recruitment’ within friendship groups, and for many, technology plays a key role. Peer-on-peer abuse accounts for an estimated 30 per cent of all exploitation. So what has happened to our society, that CSE has become so widespread, so embedded?
Where, you may wonder, are the parents in all of this? The sickening truth is that loving, desperate parents have tried with dogged determination to get help for their daughters, only to find that they have often been labelled by the authorities as part of the problem. Their daughters, they are told, have made independent lifestyle choices as part of growing up and they are simply exercising their rights.
So, do we not have rigorous child protection protocols, designed to identify abused children? We do, but they clearly aren’t working, and the report concludes that this is because the current climate of protecting children from early pregnancy and access to confidential sexual health advice not only militates against genuine protection, it actually makes it easier for abusers to groom and exploit. So GPs prescribe contraception and the morning after pill (sometimes repeatedly) to children as young as 11. Guidelines say that if a child requests confidentiality and is judged able to make consensual decisions, a health professional need not inform parents or involve child protection authorities. The fact that girls are requesting contraception in the first place is deemed evidence enough of the maturity to be given what they request. Prioritising confidentiality over safeguarding creates a climate in which CSE could flourish.
But we have an age of consent, don’t we? Yes, but this is largely ignored, particularly when sexual activity is underage, but seen as being between consenting teens. For many of the abused, the fact that they talked about their ‘boyfriend’ when they sought help, meant that the authorities assumed it to be normal consensual activity. No questions were asked about the age of the ‘boyfriend’ and even if they had, the girls often didn’t know, or had been lied to.
Finally, the report suggests that no amount of improved joined up thinking between child protection agencies will solve this problem, because it is essentially a social and moral one. The third part of the report makes a range of recommendations which society at large needs to take on board. These include consideration of the confidential provision of contraception and sexual health treatment and the abolition of the idea of ‘rights’ for a child to be sexually active. These have become social norms and in condoning ever-earlier sexual activity, society is making it easy for abusers to flourish.
During the autumn, the government will consult on the new Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) curriculum and also consider statutory content for PSHE. Many are calling for better education to protect children from abuse, whilst allowing children to remain sexually active. The report calls for something different: the restoration of rigour and respect for parents; the recovery of the age of consent, and the prioritising of marriage, family life and a moral framework in RSE.
Do you need to read this report? If you are a parent, yes. If you are a teacher, youth worker or health worker, yes. If you care about children and young people, and the mess that we have created for them, yes. The report’s author writes: ‘We need nothing less than a fundamental change in how, as a society, we view children and young people, how we perceive parental responsibility, how we treat the family unit, and how we regard the law’.
If we don’t heed the warnings from the past, we are merely condemning children of the future to the same exploitation, abuse and suffering.