When the #Rotherham report was first published, I spent an evening reading it in full and commenting on Twitter as I read. One of my remarks was this:
A good Tweetmate, @rattlecans, very reasonably asked what that community involvement should look like. This is not easy to define, any more than what the professional response should be is easy to define (despite everyone who doesn’t have to do this work thinking it’s simple and common sense, and pretty much effortless and only the truly stupid, corrupt, venal or incompetent could have failed to protect the girls who were raped, trafficked and abused in other ways).
This blogpost is intended to examine the community actions which could help to prevent child sexual exploitation. The same steps would, incidentally, protect vulnerable adults from sexual exploitation too. The post is not intended to absolve professionals from their own responsibilities but rather to make clear that the horrors that are hardest to prevent are those in which wider society is culturally complicit and that therefore professionals will be more successful if communities work with them, and also take preventative steps in our own right.
Off the top of my head, I think the main ways in which communities can help prevent child sexual exploitation, by which I mean the systematic rape and other abuses of multiple children by multiple perpetrators over a period of time, are these:
– helping the children to be less vulnerable
– making the perpetrators more visible
– providing support and challenge to the professional bodies tasked with protection functions
– addressing cultural issues that help to sustain abusers and minimise abuse
I’ll try to reflect on each of these in turn, but what follows shouldn’t be considered comprehensive. There’s probably more.
Helping children to be less vulnerable
Listen to them. Believe them. When they tell you someone hurt them, believe them. If they seem like they’re hurting, but it’s not clear why, be a trustworthy listener and be patient. Don’t judge them. If they smoke, they’re still children. If they’re drunk or use drugs, they’re still children. If they wear clothes you disapprove of and use language that makes you want to utter the words “wash your mouth out”, they’re still children. If you “know for a fact” they’re sleeping around and it’s their own fault they’re making bad and risky choices, wash out your prejudices. They can’t consent, they’re children. Remember, risk-taking behaviour can be an indicator of abuse.
I don’t mean just your children, though I do mean them too obviously. I mean your children and your friends’ children, I mean your children’s friends, and the children who definitely aren’t your children’s friends. I mean the children of the woman down the road who you judge because her four children have four different fathers. I mean the children of the family you never speak to because they’re too posh and snooty and you feel like they’re judging you all the time.
If you see a child in what looks like some bother, check it out and intervene. You may get cussed out by the child for doing so. Do it any way. If the situation seems too risky for you to intervene what on earth makes you think it’s safe for that child? Call the police if you have to. They may not come. Call anyway.
Can’t tell if a girl is 17 or only 12 but looks 17? I’m not sure I really believe you. That’s more of a justification for tutting than a real confusion. But if you’re honestly not sure, why are you not interested in protecting a young woman from a rotten situation? (Note to the confused: 17 is over the age of consent, but still legally a child, so….anyway.)
Be the mum or dad (or other carer) that answers tricky questions about sex and sexuality. Be frank and unshockable. They need someone to ask things. They need someone to tell things. Be non-judgmental. Do not promise to keep secrets. Sometimes you can’t. Be the mum or dad that runs a late night taxi service. Be the mum or dad that says “yes” to the question “can they all come back to ours?” (That way you’ll know where they are). Be the mum or dad who’ll accept a sofa-surfing pal, but make sure that someone knows where they are and that they’re safe. Don’t rape or abuse any children while you’re inhabiting your status as “cool parent”. What do you mean, that goes without saying? You haven’t seem the court reports I’ve seen. If you can’t for any reason be that mum, dad or carer, check out the ones who are.
If you’re not currently mum, dad or carer to a child, think about the children, particularly adolescents, you come across in your day-to-day life and the ways that you can tell them by a look or by a word that you’re a safe adult; the ways that you can show them they’re worth something; the ways you can make it clear that they belong in this community as much as you do. Children excluded from school are more at risk of exploitation; think twice, and twice again before excluding a child from your school. Take the “mosquito” off your shop and if a teenager asks for help, give it, gladly. Yes, even if they nicked stuff from you last week. Providing the morning after pill in your pharmacy? Do you have under age regulars? Think about how you help them. Run a hotel? Is that man really her Dad? Keep an unobtrusive eye on the last girl left in the train / tube carriage or night bus. Even if she’s pissed and looks like she’ll puke. When the lairy blokes get on, keep an eye on them too.
Support education for your own children about sex and sexuality. Someone needs to tell them the things you’re too embarrassed to say (or don’t really understand yourself!). Support sex education for all children (whether you have any of your own or not). Ignorance will not protect them. Countless children only realise that they’ve been abused when they finally receive some sex education. Only abusers have a vested interest in children not having a widely shared understanding of what is and isn’t OK.
Educate yourself. Read this: http://www.nspcc.org.uk/Inform/resourcesforprofessionals/scrs/briefing-sexual-exploitation_wda99717.html and this: http://www.nspcc.org.uk/Inform/resourcesforprofessionals/sexualabuse/identifying_sexually_exploited_children_wda85119.html
More in Part 2, later.