A NATIONAL week of action will be taking place focussing on Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) from March 16 onwards.
So I felt it would be timely to revisit this issue following the blog I wrote last September just as the high-profile failings in Rotherham had begun to make headlines.
Calling something a ‘week of action’ is helpful to raise awareness but, of course, there is constant action on this issue.
In my previous CSE blog I tried to show how seriously we take the sexual exploitation of children here; how we learn lessons when things don’t work as they should (here or elsewhere); and that we have the right policies, procedures and culture in place to ensure victims are supported and not allowed to fall through the net.
I wanted people to know what we’re doing to ensure checks and balances are in place and that we’re actually undertaking and supporting a whole range of activity that tries to prevent people becoming victims, and also puts victims first.
I also gave context to what is an extremely complex issue and considered some of the cultural issues that have been allowed to develop within many varying communities and social groups.
I’m referring here to toxic cultures that can build within communities and institutions over time and influence how often those involved or connected act when people’s behaviours cause concern. To this day there are still historical cases of sexual abuse emerging which were either brushed under the carpet at the time or simply not taken seriously because of the people involved.
In Oldham it’s my view that all our ward members, regardless of political views, are united in their resolve to safeguard the most vulnerable and give their full commitment to ensuring children and young people are protected from abuse of any kind. This means being firm in standing up and being counted – and tackling some very complex and emotionally disturbing issues.
But we also shouldn’t be naïve. While there are many political parties and activists who subscribe to fairness, some certainly do not.
Because this particular form and pattern of abuse was reported to have been carried out by predominately Asian males against mainly white girls there are some who try and tar a whole race or religion, using this as a hook to hang their hate on.
That’s no more balanced than all white men being campaigned against because of the actions of others sharing the same skin colour, religion or faith.
It’s a nonsense. Abusers are abusers and they exist in every community and social group.
The week of action starting next Monday will see the start of publicity about the larger and stronger team dedicated to dealing with CSE in our borough.
The ‘Phoenix Oldham’ team will now officially take over what ‘Operation Messenger’ began – and with additional investment from both the council and the police we’ve significantly increased the capacity and strengthened what we do.
From April 1, there’ll now be two senior social workers and one additional Family Support Worker in the team working with children and young people at both an early preventative stage, and with those subject to a CSE protection plan.
These young people are more likely to move quickly up and down the continuum of CSE risk so having additional staff providing support to a key social worker will further ensure that no child slips through the net.
Child protection and CSE briefings are also taking place at the end of March to explain these issues to our staff who are out and about in the community.
Not only will this further raise their awareness it will also give clear messages about how and when to report their concerns. Our staff, the majority of whom live in our borough, should be our eyes and ears in helping to eradicate CSE from communities.
Our team will also be carrying out extra patrols and enforcement across the borough, plus raising awareness of CSE via posters and promotional material for the CSE reporting website “It’s not Okay” – including supporting the police with a market stall in the town centre.
In addition to that we’ll working with taxi firms to offer training and advice on keeping children and young people safe.
Social workers from Phoenix Oldham will also be linking into Oldham’s schools offering advice on CSE and young people who are missing education as schools continue to be a focus for our prevention work.
I’d also like to highlight our prevention work with GW theatre which has been delivered via the play “Somebody’s sister, somebody’s daughter”.
I mentioned this in my previous blog, but what you may not be aware of is that the play was actually first developed here in Oldham in partnership with GW theatre.
Councils across the country have since commissioned performances and I’m proud we’ve played a leading role in bringing this important prevention tool to national audiences.
Across the UK, around 70 young people have so far made disclosures after seeing the play and, building on that success, we’re now working with GW theatre again (alongside five other local authorities) to develop an age appropriate prevention tool for 10-12 year olds.
Last year the play visited every secondary school and college in our borough and was seen by around 3,500 young people – mainly in year 10. We’re working with schools to roll it out again this year and aiming for a further 4,000 pupils to see it before the end of summer term.
Two community performances are also planned for June, so please get along to one if you can because eradicating the exploitation of children in the borough is, ultimately, everyone’s responsibility.
Please remember that if we ever stop being open about these difficult issues we run the risk of failing to tackling it and that means – worst of all – we let down those who need us to speak up most: the victims.
“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.
FEW PEOPLE give much thought to safeguarding, children in care or those at risk from harm – when the system works.
The vast majority of the council’s budget is spent on services like this that most of us don’t see or use – but because they take the lion’s share of the budget when the cuts come those same areas are put under massive pressure.
This week Oldham Council’s Cabinet approved a proposal to freeze Council Tax for residents for 2014/5.
We’ve done this because we recognise that – however difficult it will be to balance our budgets with a further £60m of Government cuts in the next few years – many residents are also struggling with their finances. Average weekly wages have dropped from £437 to £417 at the same time as the costs of living, driven by items like utility bills, continue to rise.
We did not want to add to that burden or be the cause of any further financial harm to hard-pressed Oldhamers.
Like all other local authorities, Oldham Council is a ‘Corporate Parent’.
This means that when a young person in our borough is in a situation where it is unsafe and/or impossible to remain with their family, we instead take on that role of a good parent instead.
We provide residential care with experienced and trained staff, as well as working with a brilliant group of foster carers and supporting permanent adoption into new loving and supportive families.
It can be easy to think that being a Council Leader like myself is just about having an overview of big developments which take the majority of the headlines – but the truth is again that the bulk of work is going on quietly behind the scenes.
I chair the Safeguarding Accountability Board where I hold professionals and Cabinet Members to account to ensure those at risk do not fall through the net.
You can never be 100 per cent sure and you can only make judgements on the information provided. This isn’t about political interference, of course, but can be just as simple as asking an innocent question which adds value to the work of our team.
Often this means meeting frontline staff and talking through what works well and how we can help to remove any blockages which might exist.
I take that role as a Corporate Parent very seriously and when presented with an issue, problem or serious safeguarding review, I always ask myself ‘What would I want and expect for my own children?’.
It can be difficult at times to step back and take a measured professional view.
Some of the cases of abuse are harrowing and I have to say there have been times when I’ve left a meeting, or finished reading a report and had to ‘pull myself together’. I hope that just means I’m human.
There are currently nearly 400 ‘Looked After Children’ in Oldham. Their reasons for entering the care system are varied, but many have experienced significant trauma (including abuse or neglect) and need tailored specialist support to ensure that they have every chance in life – like their peers – in family care.
As well as having to cope with the upheaval of moving away from home and the emotional fallout of a troubled family history, children in care can often feel out of control.
Indeed, many are the victims of unfortunate circumstances and – although we do provide care for children on a voluntary basis – many find themselves in our care due to court orders or police intervention and feel unable to change the situation they find themselves in.
That’s why we have an Oldham Children in Care Council, which enables all looked after children to have a voice and share their ideas about how the services we provide for them could be improved.
Children as young as five years old are engaged with this and have the opportunity to regularly meet senior directors and councillors at Oldham Council to give feedback and suggestions about how their care experience could change for the better.
We also make sure to celebrate the many brilliant achievements of our Looked After Children with the ‘Stars in Our Eyes Awards’, which is now in its sixth year.
This year 267 children and care leavers were nominated for various awards which recognise their efforts at school and in extracurricular activities, developing positive social skills and healthy lifestyles, and going on to great things after leaving care, such as attending college and university.
Transition to life as an adult can be hard enough even when you have family to lean on when times get tough, which is why Oldham Council provides After Care support to ensure that our Looked After Children don’t simply ‘drop off the radar’ at 18. We work with them to assess their needs and help them to achieve the things they need to have in place to achieve their aspirations. That includes education, training, employment, mental and physical health, finances, support networks, leisure activities and family contacts: all the things that most people would say they need for a rounded and happy life.
There are many ways that each of us can all do to help create a Cooperative Oldham which supports our young people.
That ranges from looking out for our children’s friends or neighbour’s children and paying Council Tax which funds the borough’s Corporate Parenting services – right through to the efforts of our brilliant foster and adoptive families. Last month, Harold and Glenys Cockroft from Waterhead were named in the New Year honours list after fostering more than 150 children in Oldham over the last 40 years. Clearly their contributions are exemplary, but everyone can ‘do their bit’ in some way.
This isn’t big brother, this is us all working together and setting the standard of what is – and isn’t –acceptable.
It is easy to forget that it can be really difficult to work in social care at times but these people are our unsung heroes in so many ways.
As a Corporate Parent we put our trust in them and give support and challenge in the way you would expect, but we are also left with a deep respect for what they do.
I’d to take this opportunity to say a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to all who play a part in this vital field of our work.
A SERIOUS case review this week has found that opportunities were missed to help four-year-old Daniel Pelka, who was murdered by his mother and her partner in Coventry.
The anger and frustration from those interviewed about the case, from reporters – and even including my own friends and family – was powerful and emotional.
While many are left thinking how unforgiveable it was that Daniel Pelka was so badly let down, I wanted to give an insight in to how I felt as another Council Leader, the Safeguarding Board Chair, Council Chief Executive and school head teacher all came under the media spotlight.
There but for the grace of God, go I.
As a council leader, cabinet member, or a professional involved in safeguarding children at risk the buck stops with you.
So, even if personally you feel you’ve done all you can when it comes to being called to account, you cannot escape the understandable need for those let down to have someone to answer for those failings.
Here in Oldham I chair the Corporate Safeguarding Accountability meetings. Put simply it enables me to understand what is happening on the front line and within our communities. I also give challenge and scrutiny to Oldham’s approach to children and adults at risk and ensure that Safeguarding arrangements are in place to address the key issues. That all sounds very technical and slightly boring, but it isn’t.
The question we always ask is: “What is in the best interests of the child?”.
The answer, on the face of it, is straightforward: To be safe, secure and well cared for and to ensure that young people are helped to make the right choices.
But the world isn’t black and white and we’re not dealing with people or situations that can be mechanistically controlled.
We are trying to work with very limited resources to meet the needs of hundreds of families and ensure that children are safeguarded. There is an overriding conflict which that very straightforward question poses.
You always have to weigh up the life changing decision to remove a child from their family to prevent harm or neglect with the realisation that this act alone can be traumatic and devastating to all parties – and may not always lead to a better outcome for the child.
In Oldham that decision was made for around 350 children who are currently in care. In addition about 290 young people are subject to a child protection plan living either at home or with families and friends.
I have spent time with frontline social workers through formal ‘meet and greet’ sessions to visiting staff in their offices. The job of a social worker can be a thankless task, but I pay tribute to the dedicated team we have in Oldham. They are real people trying hard to make a difference on the ground.
What stood out in the Daniel Pelka case for me were three key things.
The first is that even with the best systems and processes in place you will never have a system where no-one falls through the net. The scale of abuse and human judgement means that, however unsettling that truth is, unfortunately that’s the reality. That doesn’t mean you are being passive or making allowances. You don’t – you do everything you can to prevent serious harm to children.
The second was that in this case, as with others, professionals failed to see what was staring them in the face. School teachers failed to report, for example, and social workers didn’t speak to Daniel. Even without hindsight there have been enough serious case reviews where ‘lessons have been learnt’ to ensure this should not happen. We all have a duty to get this right.
Daniel was let down by the system and, ultimately, those closest to him.
As a councillor I attended safeguarding training just a few months ago where we talked though case studies and were trained on how to spot harm and when to report it.
The third key factor here is the human truth: Evil is calculated. This wasn’t a case of neglect where simply a lack of skills or an ability to parent let a child down. This was about deliberate and targeted abuse of the most evil kind.
It is human to be angry. Daniel Pelka was let down and it should not have happened.
I also know how this will be affecting those people involved in keeping children safe in Coventry. You have to be professional and make firm judgements based on facts, but it doesn’t mean that when something like this happens that you are not torn apart.
Those involved will be affected by this for years to come, if not for the rest of their lives. That isn’t to take away any failings, but it is a reality.
I will admit that the thought of this happening in Oldham does keep me awake at nights.
At times I’ve been left harrowed after learning the detail and scale of abuse in my own town. I can admit to being left emotional after learning about a very young child abused by his parents. It is odd that when you get home and see your own children healthy and enjoying life you then feel a strange sense of guilt, such is the weight of personal responsibility you feel for your town and its people.
Oldham is rated as ‘Good with many outstanding features’ for its Child Protection but we are not complacent – nor can we ever afford to be. We invest a great deal in partnership working and sharing information but we always seek ways to improve and challenge.
If it were not for those people working to protect children at risk we would hear of many, many more cases like this.
This is not a battle against a broken system; it is a battle of good people trying to protect children from evil. More often than not the ‘good guys’ win, but now and again we are all left feeling devastated.