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? http://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/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