Community responses to child sexual exploitation Pt3 – support & challenge to the “professionals”.

At the start of this series of blogposts, I said I think the main ways in which communities can help prevent child sexual exploitation, 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

Previous blogposts have addressed the first two. This is my “top of my head” thoughts about how communities can support and challenge the professional bodies who should be protecting vulnerable children. As before, what follows shouldn’t be considered comprehensive. There’s probably more.

Supporting and challenging the professionals

There are lots of services and organisations that have a role in keeping children and young people safe. The main ones can be found at the table when the Local Safeguarding Children Board meets. In addition to the local authority (and district council members in 2-tier set ups) these include the police, probation, the youth offending team, NHS clinical commissioning groups, NHS hospitals, Cafcass, representatives of any detention facility for minors and – of course – local schools. There’s also usually representation from a voluntary sector umbrella body and the law says there should also be “lay members”.

I sometimes wonder whether lay members who join LSCBs are surprised to find so many organisations with a shared responsibility for keeping children safe. Did they, like most people, think it’s just social workers who are responsible for this? One of the hollowest LSCB catchphrases is “safeguarding is everyone’s business”. Many people, public and professional, seem to view child protection as a game of “Hot Potato” – a sort of reverse Pass the Parcel in which you absolutely don’t want to be left holding the hurting child when the music stops.

The simple truth is that the people who have the best chance and greatest likelihood of keeping children safe are those who see them every day. If every single one of us took great care never to harm a child ourselves and to step in and act protectively in situations where we see children are vulnerable, very few children indeed would come to harm. If I may separate us briefly into WE, the professional organisations and YOU, everyone else, then understand this: WE are needed for child protection and safeguarding because YOU don’t do it. Or at least not enough of it. Think about that.

Child protection social work is difficult, unpleasant work. Though it is deeply satisfying when you know you have helped a child to be safe, it’s rare that you can be entirely sure. Often it involves the unpleasant business of intruding in people’s lives, asking impertinent questions in ways that try hard not to seem impertinent, disbelieving people, or at least being skeptical; being lied to, being threatened, being avoided, being complained about, being harassed, being disliked and misjudged; being told you’ve interfered too much; being told you haven’t interfered enough. It involves bad smells and filthy homes; suspicious bruises, broken bones, attack dogs, and very big men who stand between you and the door. It requires fresh daily supplies of optimism, and punishes you for the crime of optimism. The other professionals involved in this work face similar challenges. They sometimes receive less public censure than social workers – doctors are experts, nurses are angels, police are heroes, school teachers are role models, social workers merely incompetent busy-bodies – but the task of protecting vulnerable children doesn’t necessarily come any easier to them. Nor are their mistakes any less damaging.

It’s very understandable that relatively few people want to do this work themselves. How then can the wider public support those who do?

Do what you can yourself. Especially, learn to be kind and protective to children other than your own. Any children, even if you have none yourself and never will have. Even if you never were a child*.

*I know this sounds implausible but some people’s frank disregard for children (and particularly adolescents) as fellow humans strongly suggests that they somehow missed the childhood phase of maturation themselves.

Make a referral. When you really don’t know what you can or should do (or you do know, but are too damn scared to do it) report what you know to people whose job it is to do something; the police or social services. Do give them sufficient information to act on. Don’t assume that the thing that you want them to do in response to that information is the right thing, the best thing in the circumstances, or even a legal thing.

Contain your curiosity. I don’t think it’s actually unreasonable for people to want to hear feedback about what happened following their referral, but in a world of limited resources and almost infinite workload, protecting children is more important than letting you know they’ve been protected. So you might not always get that feedback. When this happens, live with it. You did your bit. Do you think that answering your complaint about not getting feedback is more important than protecting children?

Trust us. This is hard, I know. Often we are portrayed as irredeemably untrustworthy. And among those many stories of our incompetence, some of them are, shamingly, true. We will sometimes let you down. Because – like you – we’re human. More importantly we will sometimes let children down. But every single day, quietly, successfully, without recognition or credit a school teacher somewhere creates sufficient trust with a pupil that they disclose their abuse and action can be taken; every day somewhere a health visitor refers a vulnerable mother and child to a support group in a children’s centre and changes their life for the better; every night somewhere a youth worker sits on a wall next to a precariously attentive teen and explains consent, and that a relationship doesn’t have to be that way; every night somewhere a police car brings a missing child home safely and then makes a report to children’s social care who follow up with a return interview and who then link to the child’s school, who in turn book a hard-hitting touring play about CSE. Every day and every night children are more protected because WE are there.

Resource us. We voted in a government that thinks the state should be small. You may think you agree. But how small do you want it to be? Do you want it to be so small that caseloads double and vulnerable children get half the time and attention they used to? So small that time can no longer be allocated to team meetings, supervision and training with the result that information about new threats can’t be shared? So small that sometimes staff come into the office and find they can’t access a desk and computer to write up their notes? So small that people are sent to households known to be violent without a partner or backup? So small that the “early intervention” services (children’s centres, youth services) that sit closest to you, the public, cease to exist? These are not problems for a dystopian future. This is happening now. WE are dealing with this brave new world as best we can. YOU are letting it happen.

Some of you may be bristling slightly as you read this. Isn’t this what we pay our taxes for? Get this. Either we don’t pay enough, or we are spending it on the wrong things. My personal view is that it’s the former. We actually want a bigger state than we are willing to pay for and it’s about time we grew up. Maybe you think it’s the latter. If so get your challenge gear on.

What should the challenge look like to all these services who are responsible for keeping our children safe?

Get involved LSCBs have roles for lay members. Volunteer. Councils, CCG governing bodies and health and wellbeing boards (which typically have far too little on their agendas about children) meet in public. Show up and ask questions. Police and crime commissioners (for as long as these peculiar creatures continue to exist) sometimes meet in public with Chief Constables, or with their Police and Crime Panel and also hold public consultation meetings. Make your voice heard there.

Understand the work. Read actual reports. Not the newspaper articles. I have never read a newspaper account that accurately conveys the content of a Serious Case Review or any other serious-minded and challenging publication about this work. Consider the recommendations of any report and judge for yourself if you can see them being put into practice. If your day-to-day life doesn’t bring you into contact with the areas of the work covered in the report consider how well-placed you are to provide any critique. This doesn’t mean you’re not entitled to hold those who do this work to account, but it does mean you may need to learn a bit more before you are properly able to do so.

Insist that children are involved. One question which it’s always appropriate to ask, even if you don’t know much about the main subject: how were children and young people involved in devising this policy; developing this project; designing these information materials; deciding what happens next? If you have children of your own or if you work with groups of children, get them involved in matters of importance that will have impact for them. Have you heard of Takeover Day? Why not have a think about what your children / the children you work with could take over?

Keep it up. People who develop an interest that is fair-minded and well-informed make better challengers than those who merely heckle. No one is born an expert, and all of us can continue to learn and ask better questions of the complex organisational systems we interact with or form part of.

And environment of high support and high challenge is the most conducive to sustained high performance. YOU can help with both those things so that WE can get better at this work.

Final blogpost to come shortly about large scale culture change


11 thoughts on “Community responses to child sexual exploitation Pt3 – support & challenge to the “professionals”.

  1. My one comment would be about expecting feedback when you’ve made a referral. I know it is time consuming but how do we know that action has been taken unless we are told? Don’t need to know what was done but that something was done. Otherwise you are feeding info into a pit that never responds. The Rotherham report talks of people reporting but no action taken.

    • I understand. And I don’t disagree that it’s a reasonable expectation to get at least some feedback. But the rate at which contacts and referrals come in compared with the level of resources available to fund these teams means that it’s impossible to staff them at a level at which we can guarantee to do this. Straightforwardly, if it comes down to a choice between following up a very serious allegation, and phoning back someone to say “actually when we looked into this there wasn’t a basis on which we could or should act” we should be following up the allegation.
      People also expect more detailed feedback than they’re entitled to. If the service follows up a referral and decides no further action is necessary, the referrer isn’t entitled to the details of the reason why that decision was made because it is the private life of another person. So it’s a tricky line to walk, even if you have time and staff allocated to do it.
      When we make 999 calls, we don’t get feedback (unless we are actually there to see an emergency vehicle arrive and even then we don’t know what happens after that unless we ride along) and it’s not a matter of routine in 111 calls – mostly it’s just a “thanks for the information”.
      Nothing is totally impossible though, if the resources are made available to make it happen. So if the public desire is for a follow up on every contact and referral, that’s something to be put to the organisations responsible for this work as a “challenge” and to be resourced accordingly by us digging into our pockets, or re-prioritising our existing spend.

  2. Completely know that resources are stretched to breaking point. Trying to think of way through. A standard acknowledgement that you have noted request & it’s being dealt with. Don’t have to say what you are doing or result but if you have in writing that it is being looked at it is reassuring eg if you’ve phoned in you don’t know your call wasn’t lost. (Even if we know the systems are there to make sure that doesn’t happen).

    • Mmm. That’s not impossible. In a smallish service that would probably generate enough work for a full time admin worker, in bigger teams, several. And that’s where it gets tricky. When so much admin support has been cut that in some cases social workers are doing room bookings and meeting-scheduling for complex multi-agency meetings, what are the top priorities for any additional admin staff? There could be systems out there that automatically generate an acknowledgment e-mail when a referrer is entered onto the system and the decision is taken as to how to deal with it e.g assessment, NFA, step down to “early help”, S47 etc If such a thing exists, I’d be interested to know more about it.

      • Southampton MASH supposed to work in this way – response to referral within various timeframes depending on severity. In practice this isn’t working though… Like Sioned said – big black hole šŸ˜¦

  3. “WE are needed because YOU don’t do it.”

    I’ve been three (four?) different kinds of WE and I couldn’t agree more. So many people turn blind eyes, can’t/won’t believe their own family/friends/neighbours/acquaintances capabale of the neglect and abuse that (according to popular opinion) only “strangers” commit. But everyone’s stranger is someone else’s acquaintance and the reality of grooming is that abusers are not the ogres of our imagination but the friendly familiar face that begs our trust only to betray it.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your comments about the size of the state. A smaller state necessitates the reduction of resource and hence intervention and a corresponding increase in risk . If we are willing to accept this as an inevitable by-product of our political decisions, if we are willing to admit that we are happy to leave those who are most vulnerable (including our own parents, children, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews) dangerously exposed because of our desire to reduce the tax “burden” so be it, but the causal link needs to be laid bare for all to see.

    And finally I agree with your points about accountability. I am interested in the relationships between the public, their elected representatives and those who are employed to provide public services (policing, education, health, social care etc); by the way in which elected representatives hold organisations to account and are themselves held to account; by our understanding of that ‘accountability’; by the tension created by ongoing scrutiny; by alliances which form and reform; and particularly by the way that the public (aided by the media) turn so swiftly on their elected representatives, viewing them more as a facet of the offending organisation than as the informed version of their own incredulous voice.

    “Learning a bit more”, seeing the bigger picture, avoiding a knee-jerk reaction, embracing a more nuanced approach, taking action when we witness wrongdoing, sharing the responsibility for keeping people safe rather than simply blaming those whom we perceive to have “failed” in their duty: how much more could we achieve if this were our community ambition and response?

  4. Excellent, excellent piece. One thing I do disagree with is the response regarding referrals. Working in a voluntary sector agency supporting YP at risk of or experiencing CSE we ABSOLUTELY need feedback on our referrals (especially in circumstances where YP are better known to us / are not engaging with / are without a social worker). YP are relying on us to refer quite often and they want / need / deserve to know what happens next.

    I respect the time you’ve taken to write this up – it’s much appreciated.


    • Hi, I think, on the whole, professional referrals (and i include voluntary sector partners in that category) do get feedback, because you’ll be engaged (or should be) in teamwork around a child/young person if you’re already supporting them. I was referring more to the response to referrals arising from the community – who aren’t actually entitled to very much information about what’s going on in people’s lives, and rightly so.

      That said, I stand by my core point which is: if an under resourced service has to make the choice between helping a child to be safe and telling a referrer what we’re doing, we have to prioritise the former. If we were better resourced, we might be in a position to always guarantee to do both.

      • I agree. Sadly though we are (smallish, local charity) frequently (still) seen as the poor relative in a room of LA / CCG / powerful national charities and have to expend our own very meagre resources ensuring YP receive the service and outcomes they should be able to expect.

  5. Pingback: Community responses to child sexual exploitation Pt4 – Addressing the cultural issues | itsmotherswork

  6. Excellent set of blogs, with some really pertinent points for the public at large to think about in terms of collective responsibility. In particular the point you make in this blog about the link between choices made in the voting booth and the resources available to public sector services. All too often social workers in particular are vilified by the ‘popular’ press and by the public with no insight into the pressures that financial cuts have had on services. Even some of your other commenters do not grasp this connection in relation to how complex even a simple response to a referral can be. Until we start, as a society, being willing to put more money into health & social care services, we cannot be surprised when they fail to achieve the impossible tasks expected.

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