Rotherham: We need structural and culture change to improve professional practice ………

Not only were the children of Rotherham sexually exploited, they were abused by the system that was meant to protect them. Structural abuse is defined as ‘the process by which an individual is dealt with unfairly by a system of harm in ways that the person cannot protect themselves against, cannot deal with, cannot break out of, cannot mobilise against, cannot seek justice for, cannot redress, cannot avoid, cannot reverse and cannot change’ I think this adequately sums up the experience of those children who were systematically sexually exploited by their abusers and those same children who were systematically emotionally abused by the individuals and system that was meant to protect them.

The independent inquiry by Alexis Jay should give us all food for thought. Those who had the power to step in and protect those most vulnerable will have to consider engaging in some serious, and brutally honest, professional reflection whilst those now charged with bringing about change are required to ensure they understand the core issue at the centre of this scandal otherwise history will repeat itself. But what is the ‘core’ issue? Certainly some of the media have clearly highlighted the existence of a ‘racial’ element , although, it’s been overly simplified for my subjective taste. We need to also highlight the individuals in powerful positions, from national government to local government, and especially within the police force,who supported the structural abuse which ensured the sexual exploitation of children thrived for so many years. Then there is the core issue of ‘culture’. Cultural issues are incredibly important. Ruzwana Bashir reframes the issue when she speaks eloquently of the under reporting of sexual abuse of Asian girls by Asian men due to entrenched cultural taboos within her community. Arguably, the authorities were also influenced by entrenched cultural taboos attached to the victims of abuse in Rotherham. Alexis Jay outlines the stereotypical views of the young victims which the police and CPS used for not pursuing prosecutions against perpetrators. These included

  • the victim used alcohol or drugs and was therefore sexually available – Remember, these were children, 11,12,13 years of age who had been lured into substance misuse by their abusers and/or used substance to block out the horrors of their situation
  • The victim did not scream, fight or protest so they must have been consenting – Remember these were CHILDREN, the perpetrators were adult men…..
  • Children can consent to their sexual exploitation – yes a teenager may be able to consent to consensual sex, but not exploitation surely?
  • Only girls and young women are victims of child sexual abuse – in fact many of the victims were boys

(Read page 75 of the inquiry, if you can face it, for more of the same) Then there was the saddest ‘culture’ of all, after years of widespread knowledge of the sexual exploitation of children one young person told the inquiry ‘that ‘gang rape’ was a usual part of growing up in the area of Rotherham in which she lived’ (p31). This young person is a potential future parent, will she think it ‘normal’ for her children? There are more ‘core’ issues, many more. For me, however, the underlying issue revolves around power. Foucault suggests power is socially constructed and the manner in which power is exercised creates the ‘rules’ within which individuals experience a sense of powerfulness or powerlessness. These ‘rules’ then govern future interactions. For ‘Child H’ ( and many others) the ‘rules’ were writ large when she was found drunk at the age of 12 in the back of a car with a suspected perpetrator (who had indecent photos of her on his phone) and she was not protected, and then again later when she was found in a derelict house with another child and a number of adult males. She was arrested for being drunk and disorderly (none of the males were arrested). Her sense of powerlessness had been well and truly established by this time, reinforced by all her abusers, at every level.

A central tenet of any ‘answer’ to this, or any other abuse,  is to understand power is not fixed, power relations are not inevitable, unchanging or unalterable. If we change the ‘rules’ we can change the balance of power. Individuals do not have to be ‘victims’ of power, they can also be vehicles of power, but first they have to be given the tools to change the ‘rules’.  Children have to be listened to and believed.  Then the wider community have to see clearly that by speaking out the childs’ abuser(s) will be removed from society. For this to happen the ‘rules’ of safeguarding those most vulnerable in society require drastic and fundamental change, at an individual, structural and cultural level and I believe we need to start at a structural level if we want long lasting change.

I do not believe for one instance the professionals involved in decision making wanted any of this to happen, however, I do believe that when exposed to certain organisational cultures their role and practice are corrupted by new social constructions  of child protection which are a far cry from those they developed when training to become a professional.

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