Protecting Children from Organised Sexual Crime
by Dr Liz Davies, Reader in Child Protection (Emeritus), Faculty of Social Science and Humanities, London Metropolitan University
The Metropolitan Police Bexley project, in 1984, enabled police and social workers to train and work together in the investigation of child abuse. This led to specialist workers commonly sharing offices, jointly interviewing, acting to protect children and bringing perpetrators to justice. Joined-up, child-centred practice was developed with a crucial sharing of expertise, strong development of trust and close inter-professional communication. This practice went beyond abuse within the family to include the investigation of organised networks of crime against children.
In 1991, multi-agency, child protection guidance defined organised abuse as involving a number of abusers, a number of abused children and young people and encompassing different forms of abuse. Yet, in 2013, drastically reduced guidance omitted all reference to organised abuse and the means of investigating it. The phrase joint investigation was also erased in blatant disregard of recommendations from hundreds of child abuse inquiries.
Recent inquiries about child sexual exploitation heavily criticised social workers for their lack of response to grooming and reluctance to proactively protect children. Police found it difficult to work alongside social workers who focussed on the behaviours of child victims rather than the causes of those behaviours and who explained sexual exploitation as a child’s ‘lifestyle choice’. Such poor social work was no surprise given policy changes, since the mid-90s,that have driven a wedge between professionals and blocked protective practice.
Steadily reduced child protection systems and structures have led to a division between the police role in investigating crime and the social work task of assessing children’s needs and specialist joint teams and joint interviewing have been largely abandoned. Assessment procedures targeted abuse within the family, whereas previously joint investigation had included social workers in the skills of evidence collation, forensic knowledge, profiling of perpetrators, awareness of scenes of crime and knowledge of offending behaviour. Investigative skills were no longer part of the social work repertoire, an approach strongly reinforced by social work academics emphasising prevention at the expense of protection. Whilst investigation might take months, assessments were required to reach completion within days, often leading to cases being closed before a child had been interviewed or made safe. The abolition of the child protection register in 2008, a cornerstone of protection work since the 80s, removed the alert to emergency services of children identified as at high risk of harm and severely undermined joint working.
Reduction in national guidance prepared the way for deregulation and privatisation of frontline child protection services. Reliance on local guidance has resulted in differing standards which is not conducive to investigating complex networks across authority boundaries. Business interests now drive children’s services and the profit motive leaves little room for the labour intensive, specialist response needed to effectively protect children.
There are still many professionals who know exactly how to protect children from organised sexual crime and yet Inquiry after Inquiry endlessly repeat the same messages. The Goddard Inquiry will take at least 5 years to report what is already known about poor professional practice and yet will undoubtedly fail to expose the powerful political agendas and policy manipulations that have left so many children unprotected. Following recent inquiries, some joint investigation teams have been re-established including the co-location of social workers, police and paediatricians, but there is still no national multi-agency team to co-ordinate local investigations and provide a national response to organised sexual crime against children. The Barnahus model of child protection, long established throughout Scandinavia, is a system of rigorous multi-agency investigation embedded in children’s rights and similar to the UK investigations of the 90s. This should be urgently piloted in the UK as the Children’s Commissioner recommends.
Dr Liz Davies
Reader in Child Protection (Emeritus)
London Metropolitan University