Leader's blog

Child Sexual Exploitation: It’s everyone’s business

SAFEGUARDING: Keeping our children and young people safe is the only priority – any other concern is a secondary one.

WHAT IS Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE)?

The Children’s Society defines it as:

“Someone taking advantage of you sexually, for their own benefit. Through threats, bribes, violence, humiliation, or by telling you that they love you, they will have the power to get you to do sexual things for their own, or other people’s benefit or enjoyment (including: touching or kissing private parts, sex, taking sexual photos).”

In the wake of the recent report into cases in Rotherham some very serious questions are again rightly being asked about how professionals and politicians deal with issues of CSE.

It is understandable that when something so serious happens we all question what it means for our own town.

As Chair of the local Safeguarding Accountability Board it is my job as council leader to ensure that professionals involved in safeguarding work for children and adults are held to account, challenged and supported.

I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon on this subject – and nor I am going to line up and grandstand as others have done with the benefit of hindsight.

But I do want to take a step back and give some context to this complex and difficult issue.

There is always a danger that in trying to address this topic you run the risk of over-simplifying something which is actually extremely complex.

There’s also a risk that, even with the best intentions, you find yourself making sweeping generalisations which don’t hold up to scrutiny.

But I’ve also taken the view that not writing anything about this at all is not an option.

It also goes without saying that keeping children safe is the priority and any other concern is a secondary one.

This week we invited the Oldham Chronicle along to meet our Multi Agency Solutions Hub (MASH) to talk about the work we do to prevent child sexual exploitation, to support the victims of abuse and, of course, ultimately bring offenders to justice.

Opening up like this to the media wasn’t a fanfare. We aren’t saying we are perfect here and we’re certainly not saying there have never been problems in Oldham.

What we want to demonstrate is that we take it seriously, that we learn lessons when things go wrong here or elsewhere and that we have the right policies, procedures and culture in place to make sure victims are supported and not allowed to fall through the net.

For the purposes of this blog I’ll focus on the particular issue of grooming although that does need to be put into the context of wider child protection.

As it stands most young people will be at greatest risk of harm from a family member or someone associated with the family. It is also the case that in terms of emerging danger there is growing concern about how new technology is being used by those seeking to groom and abuse; and that is more likely to be white men.

On the particular issue of grooming covered in Rotherham and other places we need to be honest. There are clear characteristics to that kind of abuse and sexual exploitation.

It’s a pattern of abuse which identifies vulnerable girls, grooms them in a very calculated and systemic way and then brings them into a circle of abusers where they are used as sex objects for the gratification of men with a sickening view of women.

Anyone who shies away from accepting that in Rotherham, Oxford, Rochdale and here in Oldham – and that this particular form of abuse is predominately Pakistani men targeting white girls – is not helping the victims, and nor is it helping the Asian community at large.

Often the word culture is used in this context and it immediately conjures up an image of multi-cultural Britain with different races of people.

But what I’m talking about here – and what has been evidenced in all those places – are toxic cultures that develop within communities and institutions and influence how often those involved or connected act when the behaviours of those people are challenged. I’m talking about how groups of people, communities, organisations and institutions set their own behaviours, rules and develop accepted norms.

This has happened in Rotherham and other places previously mentioned, but the same was true of some people in the Catholic Church which institutionally covered up child abuse for decades.

The same was true of some people of the media industry who used and abused their position and celebrity status while others seemingly looked on.

The same was true of some parliamentarians – and the same is true of some teachers, some social workers, some health workers, some community workers, some family members and any other profession, race or religion or community you care to mention. You get the point.

The thing that ties them all together is that some people will abuse children – and they will appear in all walks of life and come from all backgrounds.

But the challenge here is that regardless of cultures which develop or concerns about what going public might mean for wider community relations, the public should be able to expect that those placed in positions of authority – and those tasked with protecting vulnerable people – rise and act above it.

The challenge is ensuring the right checks and balances are in place and that we don’t allow complexities to be a reason to explain away the issue without tackling it and putting victims first.

Oldham is a large town in a large city region. With a population of more than 227,000 people from all kinds of diverse backgrounds coming together across different communities, groups and institutions.

It is fact of life that some of our residents will seek to harm and abuse. That can’t really be news to news to anyone. And is there a problem of abuse here which has the same characteristics as highlighted in Rochdale, Oxford and Rotherham?

Well, today I can tell you that we have 230 children with Child Protection Plans in place that cover a range of concerns about the potential welfare of the child. It’s important to note that covers a wide range of harm and is clearly not just potential sexual abuse. The plans can be in place to ensure children are healthy and well cared for, as an example, or if we are concerned they might be exposed to domestic violence.

In terms of the particular form of abuse I’m discussing on the blog, I can tell you that we are currently supporting a total of 70 young people identified as potential victims with plans in place to protect and assist them with a range of partner organisations. Of those, 45 are seen as low-risk, 9 as medium risk and 16 as high risk. These are people who, without support and intervention could potentially become victims – and that could be because of the social groups they mix in or their friendships. But these figures and the levels of risk individuals are at can also change from day to day, so whatever data we give is simply a snapshot of one moment of time.*

Do we have a culture in Oldham of hiding from the truth or are we fearful of upsetting people with it? No. But that isn’t to say we are careless either and I hope this blog has given an honest assessment to tackle head on some of the issues local people have raised.We are mindful of the impact that what we do can have on community relations, of course. But we want to bring criminals to book and in doing so we also want to make sure that those who are innocent aren’t tarred with the same brush.

Our own experience is that when we do see this kind of crime brought in front of the court, very shortly afterwards far right groups will jump on it to try and tar a whole community.

That, however, isn’t an excuse not to do something – it’s actually even more of a reason to ensure that we act.

If we don’t tackle wrongdoing we give more oxygen to those who seek to gain politically by accusing those in authority of cover-ups and failures. You can’t beat that world view with more cover ups. You beat it with honesty and by acting responsibly.

As I write this Greater Manchester Police (GMP) – working with local councils across the city region – are proactively trying to raise awareness of CSE through community activity, roadshows and by speaking to young people. This was the result of work undertaken in April 2012 by the Greater Manchester Safeguarding Partnership.

The Phoenix Project is work ongoing across the region to provide advice, support and guidance to these teams to ensure that all professionals are working to the best standards and to improve the services offered to victims and those at risk of child sexual exploitation.

GMP are also in the middle of investigations which will soon see some suspected offenders arrested and presented to court; although it is right to point out that this is predominately focused on historic cases of abuse.

We see this problem as complex and one with a number of aspects which must be addressed.

Too often young girls are targeted and even they themselves don’t see or understand the early signs of grooming. Through the hard hitting play “Somebody’s Sister; Somebody’s Daughter” we work in schools and communities to educate our youngsters and make them aware of the early warning signs of grooming.

You might question the value of performing a play? Many people did, but I can tell you that 35 young people came forward to discuss concerns they had last year alone as a result of seeing it.

We work closely here with different agencies now through the MASH, which is where professionals work alongside each other to review cases that come in, share information and ensure that victims don’t fall through gaps between different agencies.

So, do we have the right checks and balances in place here then in Oldham? We strongly believe so, but we cannot be complacent nor can we ever believe that we are perfect.

We treat all those identified in this work as victims. Regardless of their background or their previous behaviour we do not allow that to be used to explain away a problem and ignore it.

We also don’t pigeonhole victims. Although the majority of known victims of CSE are white girls, not all of them are. Increasingly vulnerable boys are groomed on line by older men, for example, and youngsters from all backgrounds, including the Asian community, are vulnerable. Abusers will seek out opportunities to exploit whoever, wherever and whenever they can in society.

I have focused in this post-Rotherham blog on one particular form of abuse for obvious reasons, but there are many others. Their methods and characteristics evolve over time which is why we must innovate and work differently every day.

Ultimately though, we also need a community response.

You know what is happening in your area – and you are our eyes and ears. We need you to report any concerns so they can be looked into.

If you have any concerns at all, then a new GMP website has been launched this week at http://www.itsnotokay.co.uk

It contains information for young people, parents, carers, and professionals alike. You can report child sexual exploitation concerns to the police by dialling 101.

Please also take time to read the Oldham Chronicle’s coverage next week of the work that is going on in Oldham.

But above all, please remember that we all have a role to play in protection.

Child Sexual Exploitation is everyone’s business.

Thanks for listening,


* NOTE: I have amended these figures since initial publication to reflect the most up-to-date figures I’ve now received.