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Tuesday, March 03, 2015 

5 years in prison for not doing your job? Only for social workers, naturally.

It's getting to the point where it would be easier for all concerned if the government changed tack completely and passed legislation setting out what is legal as opposed to illegal.  David Cameron's major response to the latest report on child sexual exploitation is to propose those in a position of authority who fail to protect their wards could face up to 5 years in prison.  Yvette Cooper says that isn't good enough and argues child exploitation should become a specific offence.  Yesterday the ban on driving under the influence of drugs came into effect, covering both legal and illegal substances, with little in the way of an awareness campaign.  Also to be illegal before long is smoking in a car with children present, destined you have to suspect to be another law seldom used or enforced but had to go on the statute book to "send a message".

New Labour of course turned legislation into the art of seeing to be doing something.  Umpteen criminal justice acts, a smattering of terrorism acts, some of which caused unforeseen problems that had to be corrected with further legislation.  But hey, at least this constant activity at Westminster meant MPs were doing something, as opposed to now when they've got so much free time they boast about it, right?

Or perhaps it's all the free time Dave has to spend chillaxing that leads him to such counter-productive, beyond stupid ideas as further making work all but intolerable for those at the sharp-end of child protection, whether they be social workers, police officers, teachers or the councillors with overall responsibility.  It certainly didn't come from reading the Serious Case Review published today into the Operation Bullfinch grooming case in Oxfordshire, which sets out just how incredibly difficult it was for all concerned to help the victims when the control over them was so absolute and the pattern of abuse had yet to be properly identified.

Without excusing their failures for a second, it describes all the hurdles in their way, the challenging background of the girls which the abusers exploited and the almost complete lack of cooperation from the victims as a result of their grooming.  Three of the six girls the SCR focuses on had experience of sexual abuse in their family prior to being groomed.  Most had experienced parental domestic violence; the police attended one family 74 times in a two-year period (page 37).  A senior police officer related to the inquiry how one girl had as punishment been taken into a wood, where she was raped and humiliated by seven men (page 39).  Left crying and naked, the person she called for help was not a parent, a friend, a social worker or a police officer, but one of the men who had been involved in the assault.  There were a number of attempts to prosecute men involved in similar crimes to those convicted as a result of Bullfinch, one of which went to court but collapsed after the key witness refused to continue giving evidence after a defence cross-examination.  In another instance an officer described himself as "shocked" the victim was only 13, and she was also considered to be "out of control", and there were "no corroborating forensics".  Of the six girls themselves, there were a number of attempts to prosecute their abusers prior to the final court case (compiled on page 43), but only in a couple of instances did the victims cooperate prior to then.

If this all sounds familiar, the report itself notes just how uncannily similar it is to what happened in Rotherham, Rochdale, Derby and Bristol.  The two key differences are that unlike in Rotherham, the council itself isn't getting blamed and second that despite the fact five of the men convicted were of Pakistani heritage, there is no evidence and also been no suggestion of inaction due to fears of being seen as racist.  Indeed, Alexis Jay in her Rotherham report felt decision making had not been affected by fears of racism, even if councillors and others had felt pressure to downplay the ethnicity of the perpetrators.

While there have clearly not been the same problems with denial in Oxfordshire as reported in Rotherham, the report itself asks just how it was "with many professionals very worried about the girls, with considerable resources being used to keep them safe (for example, in distant secure facilities) and ‘missing’ statistics which were unusually high, why the full picture did not emerge and the issue never percolated through to governing body level such as CEOs, Boards, or Committees" (page 75).  The answer, as much as any, the report suggests, is how it wasn't until the late 00s that grooming of this type and this scale was properly identified as being such a major concern in the official guidance (page 70).  That, coupled with the sheer difficulty of trying to help victims who seemingly didn't want to be helped, and who at times, were treated as making their own choices despite their age, seem the key reasons.

This obviously doesn't tally with Cameron's denunciation of a "walk on by" culture, nor with the common assumption that it was apparent what was happening and so could have been stopped far sooner.  Quite why child sexual exploitation required a Downing Street summit now also isn't clear, or rather, is: the election's coming, and Cameron apparently fears UKIP will escalate its campaigning after Farage's disgraceful comments on Fox News.  Not that Cameron's description of sexual abuse as occurring on an "industrial scale" is helpful either, not least for the image it conjures in the mind.  Ridiculous rather than tasteless is making CSE a "national threat", without there being the slightest explanation as to how doing so will help rather than just sound good.

Much the same thinking seems behind the five years jail plan.  Social workers must wonder what fresh hell each new day will bring: damned if despite their best efforts they fail to protect a child, damned if they "overreact" and take a child of a lovely middle class family going through a few problems into care, whom then go to the Daily Mail.  Little wonder there are so many vacancies, few now wanting to go into a profession which despite being incredibly rewarding invites such hostility.  It's not even as though politicians at a national level accept they, like others, failed to see CSE as a problem, only responding once it started to receive wider attention.  Nor will it see extra resources provided to councils as their budgets are slashed further by Whitehall, as fine words and big sticks are the only things on offer.  While reports try and explain why, politicians remain interested only in the now. 

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