Rotherham child sex abuse highlights need for culture change Children must be listened to, and Government and all agencies must make a clear commitment to root

Children must be listened to, and Government and all agencies must make a clear commitment to root out abuse

The horrendous events in Rotherham highlighted in Professor Alexis Jay's report bring into sharp relief the challenge we face as a society in keeping children safe from abuse: 1400 children intimidated, sexually exploited and deeply harmed in ways we can barely begin to imagine, yet dismissed as unworthy of protection even when they found the courage to seek help from the authorities.

"This report is truly damning and highlights consistent failures to protect children from sexual abuse at the hands of predatory groups of men."
John Cameron / Head of NSPCC helpline

John Cameron, head of NSPCC helpline at the NSPCC, said: "This report is truly damning and highlights consistent failures to protect children from sexual abuse at the hands of predatory groups of men.

"It appears there was at a senior level a collective blindness, over many years, to the suffering of children who endured almost incomprehensible levels of violence and intimidation.

"Many of these children were already extremely vulnerable and the manner in which they were let down by agencies entrusted to protect them is appalling. It is quite astonishing that even when front-line staff raised concerns these were not acted upon so allowing devastating child sexual exploitation to go unchallenged.

Teenage girls

"Sexual abuse always needs to be fully investigated, whatever community it is occurring in. Cultural sensitivities should never stand in the way of protecting children. It is hard to imagine the damage caused to victims who were preyed upon with almost impunity over many years, because of a reluctance to comprehend or address what was widely happening.

"We must now ensure there is never a repeat of this truly distressing and depressing saga by taking action as soon as suspicions of child abuse are raised."

Rotherham happened because teenagers were not viewed as victims of abuse. How can that be? What happened in Rotherham was more than a consequence of the way that the police and children's services work - although this mattered too.

Rather, it was predominately the result of a culture that refused to countenance "troublesome" teenagers as victims, that was prepared to tolerate the existence of sexual abuse (fatalistic, even, about the possibility of stopping it), and a perverse form of racism that discouraged any form of response for fear of upsetting community relations.

Sexual exploitation is happening across the UK, this is not an isolated case

We should be clear that Rotherham is not an isolated case. Shocking as it is, it already follows high profile cases of widespread sexual abuse in other towns and cities.

Nor do we believe the total number of victims in Rotherham to be 1400; many Asian girls who were also abused have not come forward because of the shame they felt and pressure from their own communities to remain silent.

We have drawn attention to the scale of sexual abuse for many years - it is only recently that we are being believed.

The sexual exploitation of vulnerable teenagers is happening in every town, in every region. And statutory services are not in a fit position to respond consistently and convincingly.

Children need to be listened to and taken seriously

What's needed first and foremost is a change in culture. A culture that puts the wellbeing of all children and young people ahead of community sensitivities or political correctness.

A culture where children are listened to and taken seriously. A culture that recognises that children are victims even when they don't present as such because their behaviour seems confusing, unreliable and contradictory. A culture that is prepared to treat children's mental health as seriously as it does their education. A culture, in short, that really protects children.

In the absence of a change of culture, no amount of reform to policy and procedures will alter the chances of Rotherham happening again.

Changing a culture is not simple. It can't be done by decree, no one agency or organisation can make it happen. But it does require impatient and determined leadership - a restlessness to root out what is happening and to galvanise action at all levels.

Government and all agencies must make a clear commitment to root out abuse

Without clear commitment from council leaders, council chief executives, police and crime commissioners and chief constables, and a willingness by central government to hold all these agencies to account, front line social workers, police officers, youth workers and teachers won't be expected, or feel supported to, identify the most vulnerable children, disrupt exploitation, listen to and support victims.

And, as Rotherham shows, even when they do they won't be taken seriously. We need leaders who are prepared to take on the responsibility of driving change and should refuse to tolerate those who do not.

So in Town Halls and Police Forces up and down, the country leaders must demonstrate that they have the impatience to root out abuse, a commitment to support specialist services and a determination to ensure that all professionals who work with children understand the signs of child sexual exploitation and how to respond.

Woman on phoneThere does need to be a shift in the culture of reporting abuse -  it should be a criminal offence to cover-up, conceal or ignore known abuse and all professionals working with children should be required to report or face sanctions - but this must also be matched by a willingness to act.

Adoption of existing best practice such as the Office of the Children's Commissioner's 'See Me Hear Me framework' for protecting children from child sexual exploitation is a positive immediate step that all authorities can take.

But it must be backed by stronger action from Local Safeguarding Children Boards to scrutinise and challenge and hold local leaders to account. It is not enough to have training plans, policies and procedures in place - these must live beyond the page and change the way that services operate.

It is simply not acceptable that to date the existence of child sexual exploitation hasn't been taken seriously enough: 31% of local safeguarding boards report that they have no specialised child sexual exploitation services in their area.

And the police, whose willingness to countenance that young people might be victims of exploitation has been called into question by the Rotherham case, must transform further and faster their approach to child sexual exploitation. All allegations of sexual exploitation of children must be fully investigated, and perpetrators swiftly identified and prosecuted whatever community it is occurring in and even if those involved do not see themselves as victims.

What we are doing to tackle child sexual exploitation

As the UK's largest independent charity dedicated to keeping children safe from abuse and neglect we're at the forefront of the battle to protect children from sexual exploitation.

Leading culture change

We are leading efforts to change culture, speaking out time and time again for children. We will never shirk from our responsibility to challenge bad policies and practice wherever we see them.

Our helplines are available 24/7 for children in distress or adults worried about a child

We offer the only national helpline for children in distress. ChildLine provides a confidential safe place for any child to turn when they are in trouble. We are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week to help children. We will always listen, particularly when no one else will.

Helpline staff memberOur national adult helpline provides a place for adults to come when they are worried about possible sexual abuse of children. This too is available 24 hours a day.

Calls to our adult helpline have doubled in the last four years as public awareness of the extent of abuse has increased. And calls have increased even further in the aftermath of Rotherham.

But we are determined to ensure that more children and adults get the help they need via our helplines in the years ahead. We are deploying new ways to reach those who need help, but don't know where to turn.

Two weeks ago NSPCC launched a new 24/7 helpline for adults who are worried about young people who may be involved in, or at risk from, gangs. By targeting areas where gangs are already known to be operating, using street-by-street marketing and with the support of the local community, we are already reaching some families who would otherwise have nowhere else to turn.

Contact our helpline

Find out more about ChildLine

Helpling children understand abuse through the ChildLine School Service

Children at schoolOur ChildLine Schools Service is helping primary school pupils across the country to better understand abuse. Our aim is to have visited all primary schools in the next two years. But we will be looking at how we can extend our work to secondary schools.

It is essential that there is a concerted effort to raise awareness in schools, to improve sex and relationship education and to provide targeted prevention undertaken by specialist services in partnership with schools.

Find out more about ChildLine Schools Service

Support services for children who have been sexually abused

Right now there are tens of thousands of children who have been sexually abused and urgently need help to rebuild their lives. It is a national disgrace that there is such a dearth of support for children in these circumstances.

We have pioneered therapeutic support for children who have been sexually abused and is building a world-leading evidence base to show others what is needed to turn children's lives around.

Our Protect and Respect service works with 11-19 years who are at risk of sexual exploitation and helps them to understand the risks they face and how they can avoid them. But these types of services are still regarded as niche. We want to see them available in every local area.

Find out more about our services for children who have been sexually abused

Campaigning for changes to support children giving evidence in court

When it comes to supporting children who have been sexually abused through the process of giving evidence in court, major changes are needed.

The justice system remains far too intimidating for child witnesses: 99% of children still have to attend courts to give evidence because of the lack of remote sites and very few get access to a 'registered intermediary' to help them understand the court process.

Find out more about our Order in Court campaign

Highlighting improvements in children's services

Finally, we will continue to press for changes to the way children's services are organised, funded and operate.

We said in our annual How Safe Are Our Children? report that children's services acting alone are no longer anything more than an emergency service: we estimate that for every child on a child protection plan, another eight have been maltreated.

Woman writing notesChildren's services are extraordinarily overstretched, with front line workers required to ration their services to the youngest, most vulnerable children, leaving many unprotected altogether.

With such high thresholds for children's social care little wonder that we find the children are not known to statutory agencies, or 'come and go' as front line workers are under pressure to close cases.

Listening to what children tell us, being inquisitive enough to root out abuse, requires time and resources as well as commitment. Specialist services which build trust with young people (when all other services have failed) require resourcing.

The state of children's services in Rotherham is mirrored in councils up and down the land. The time has come to rethink the services we rely on to keep children safe.

Read our How Safe Are Our Children? report

The terrible cases exposed in Rotherham have increased our determination to help more children and young people. We will never shirk from our responsibility to speak out for the most vulnerable children in our society: we will continue to demand change on their behalf. We believe every childhood is worth fighting for.