Child sexual exploitation: ‘Everything we said was viewed with suspicion’

Parents of children sexually exploited by criminal gangs can be blamed for not preventing abuse, report finds

This report confirms what so many mums and families face when we ask for help – suspicion and blame, and children left vulnerable because the authorities just don’t care

Louise Tickle The Guardian 29 January 2020

When Jess Brookes’ teenage daughter started running away in the night, it was terrifying. But in 2016, when she arrived home with knife cuts to her face, “we got the shock of our life”, says Brookes. It took a week of careful probing to find out what was going on: 13-year-old Charlotte was being raped and threatened by a criminal gang in the south-coast town where they live. The grooming had begun when she was 12.

Petrified for her daughter’s safety, Brookes phoned her council’s child protection team for help. “They didn’t get back to me for absolutely ages. Literally weeks,” Brookes recalls with incredulity. When her increasingly distraught phone calls finally did bring a response, it was, she says, “absolutely appalling”. “My approach was to be constructive, work in cooperation, and to give as much information as I possibly could,” says Brookes. But when, after more weeks of chasing, the social worker’s report landed, she and her husband were poleaxed to find they were being blamed for not preventing the abuse from happening.

Parents are part of the solution, they’re not the problemGill Gibbons, chief executive, Pace

“It was devastating. Reading it was like looking at your life but you don’t recognise the people who are being talked about,” she explains. “Everything we’d said was twisted, everything was looked at through the lens of suspicion, even though we weren’t the people who were perpetrating any crimes.”

Brookes’ experience is far from unique, according to a damning report published today by the charity Parents Against Child Exploitation (Pace).Advertisement

The report draws on semi-structured interviews and focus group sessions with 32 parents or grandparents whose children were sexually abused outside the home. Their testimony makes disturbing reading: lengthy delays in any action taken; not being listened to by social workers; feeling that their child had not been helped; and that they were often viewed as bad parents, or even possible abusers themselves. Nearly all the participants felt social workers had a poor grasp of child sexual exploitation, often minimising or dismissing the physical and mental harm their children were being subjected to by criminal gangs.

“The sexual exploitation my daughter was suffering wasn’t part of children’s services discussions,” says Nicholas Beale, a single father from the West Midlands who has brought up his daughter on his own since she was a baby. “I kept raising it with [children’s services], but they were constantly questioning my parenting, my failings. And the language that was used was so patronising, condescending, dehumanising … if it had just been one person, I’d have put it down to their individual failings, but it was every social worker with the exception of one.”

An experienced community work professional himself, Beale says he felt so unsupported that he had no option but to request that his daughter go into temporary foster care. The emotional strain took its toll, and this, he says, was used against him by frontline workers determined to find fault.

“It was entrapment … encouraging me to take antidepressants, which I did, and then it was, ‘We’re not sure how Dad is coping, because he’s taking antidepressants’,” he recalls, baffled and still, clearly, angry.Advertisement

Child sexual exploitation is increasingly high profile, with cases in RotherhamOxfordTelford and, most recently, Manchester regularly hitting the headlines.

Gill Gibbons is chief executive of Pace, which supports parents attempting to extricate their children from the clutches of the gangs that serially rape vulnerable teenagers for profit. She says that, although things have changed from the time of the Rotherham scandal when social workers explicitly viewed children as consenting to their own abuse, the testimony in Pace’s report leads her to believe “the shift away from blaming parents has taken a lot longer”. “It has been hardwired into all the training around child abuse that the first perpetrator you look at is parents,” she says.

Jenny Coles, vice president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and director of children’s services for Hertfordshire, insists that local authorities’ understanding of child sexual exploitation has developed in recent years, specifically as a result of listening to parents. “It has informed and improved practice, so to hear parents are feeling this way is not what you’d want,” she acknowledges. Frontline staff, she explains, are being trained on “a huge range” of up-to-date materials. While Coles acknowledges that child protection methodology was orginally based on abuse and neglect inside the family, she argues that “across the country that has been developed to a broader guidance to safety planning and safeguarding for teenagers”.

But, according to Leeds’ director of children’s services Steve Walker, in some council areas, there is still some way to go. “While it has taken police and children’s services time to understand the complex dynamics of how child sexual exploitation works, I think that agencies now have a better grasp of the issues. However, the approach taken towards families in some children’s social work departments is problematic,” he says.Advertisement

“Families are assessed through the lens of risk, where they are either causing harm or failing to protect, which is unhelpful in all but the most severe cases of abuse. As a result, families experience social work interventions as judgmental and adversarial. This makes it difficult to achieve the kind of partnership with families that is needed, particularly where there are concerns about sexual exploitation.”

Training can bring good results. While Pace says parents tell them that police response is still patchy, and laws enacted to enable police to disrupt perpetrators such as sexual harm prevention orders are rarely used, both Brookes and Beale maintain that the response they received from police at all levels in their different areas of the country was consistently excellent.

Beale’s daughter is safe now, but the trauma they both experienced over eight terrifying months “was made worse”, he says, as a direct result of how social workers dealt with him. Brookes, whose daughter also got away from her abusers, says she will never again ask social services for help. “I would say steer well clear,” she says, simply. “Because, unless they start to change their ways, they are no help at all. The reverse: they’re very damaging.”

Today’s report concludes that council children’s services departments must completely change their attitude to families, “otherwise opportunities to safeguard children will be lost”, says Gibbons. The report recommends earlier and more creative responses from social workers, a commitment by children’s services to fostering a genuine working partnership with parents and good relationships with exploited children, and better quality multi-agency working. “At the top level, the policymakers are supportive,” says Gibbons. “It’s percolating that understanding down to the people on the ground that has always been the problem – that is the hard work.”

“Parents are part of the solution, they’re not the problem,” she says. “They have so much knowledge and information about their child and what’s going on. It’s wasted expertise.”

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