How the state failed to protect children in Rochdale

Despite Rochdale social services being told that the girls were at risk, they did not intervene.

In August, I reported from Rochdale on the fall-out from the child grooming scandal - in which a gang of child abusers had been allowed to operate unhindered for several years, despite social services and police being aware of its existence.

Today's Guardian has unearthed evidence that backs up claims made in my report. The scale of what they uncovered, via freedom of information requests, is quite shocking: an NHS crisis intervention team that provided sexual health services to vulnerable young people contacted the borough council a total of 83 times between 2004 and 2010 about teenage girls they thought were being abused.

Despite Rochdale social services being told that the girls - some of whom were in care but many who were not - were at risk, they did not intervene. As the town's MP, Simon Danczuk, told me, there was an attitude that the girls were making "life choices" and were choosing to have sex with their abusers.

Greater Manchester Police, too, were slow to act - only bringing a prosecution against members of the gang over two years after an initial complaint was made. Their excuse was that the girls were from "chaotic, council estate" backgrounds, indicating a similar attitude to social services.

When the nine members of the grooming gang were convicted in May 2012, much of the media coverage focused on the fact that they were all of British Pakistani or Afghan origin, and that their victims were white. Earlier this week, the Times reported on similar crimes that took place in Rotherham (£), and a similar catalogue of inaction by agencies that should have been protecting children.

These most recent reports emphasise that whatever the motivations of their abusers, the victims were failed by the state, as a result of assumptions made about their backgrounds and morals. These were the "missed opportunities" acknowledged by Rochdale's Safeguarding Children Board in a report also published today.

Politicians and media commentators who wish to grandstand about "Muslim culture" or "Asian sex gangs" - and there have been plenty - should recognise that in these cases, prejudice exists rather closer to home.

The former Home Secretary Jack Straw has once again waded into the debate, acknowledging the systemic failures, and that the vast majority of sex offenders in Britain are white, but calling once more for the "Asian community" to confront abusers in its midst.

Yet, as Mohammed Shafiq, a youth worker from Rochdale and head of the Ramadhan Foundation, told me:

"The progress is on the street. It’s in the cafés, in the takeaways, with people socialising in the gym. People are talking about this. There has been utter disgust at the crime, and shame that someone from our community has done this, and sympathy for the families who have had to suffer." But, he added: "I think we’ve got a chattering class in London, where anything to do with race, anything to do with working-class people, they rub their hands with glee and decide that they’re going to inflame this. And because they [the abusers] were Asian, because they were Muslim, it just fitted their agenda."

 

A newspaper advertising board outside a corner shop in the Lancashire town of Rochdale after nine men were arrested for child sexual exploitation on January 11, 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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As children face a mental health crisis, should schools take the lead in fighting it?

There is a crisis affecting the mental health of England's young people. As Children’s Mental Health Week gets underway, the government must put schools at the heart of mental health services.

Three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health condition. Half of these are conduct (behavioural) disorders, while one third are emotional disorders such as stress, anxiety and depression, which often becomes outwardly apparent through self-harm. There was a staggering 52 per cent jump in hospital admissions for children and young people who had self-harmed between 2009 and 2015.

Schools and teachers have consistently reported the scale of the problem since 2009. Last year, over half of teachers reported that more of their pupils experience mental health problems than in the past. But teachers also consistently report how ill-equipped they feel to meet pupils’ mental health needs, and often cite a lack of training, expertise and support from NHS services.

Part of the reason for the increased pressure on schools is that there are now fewer ‘early intervention’ and low-level mental health services based in the community. Cuts to local authority budgets since 2010 have resulted in significant erosion of these services, despite strong evidence of their effectiveness in reducing escalation and crises further down the line. According to the parliamentary Health Select Committee, this has led specialist child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) to become inundated with more severe and complex cases that have been allowed to escalate through a lack of early treatment.

This matters.  Allowing the mental health of children and young people to deteriorate to this extent will prevent us from creating a healthy, happy, economically productive society.

So what part should schools play in government’s response?

During the last parliament, the government played down the role of schools in meeting pupils’ mental health and wider emotional needs. Michael Gove, during his tenure as education secretary, made a conscious decision to move away from the Every Child Matters framework, which obliged local authorities to work with schools and health services to improve the ‘physical and mental wellbeing’ of all children in their local area. He argued that schools policy needed to focus more heavily on academic outcomes and educational rigour, and references to children’s wellbeing were removed from the Ofsted framework. This created a false dichotomy between academic standards and pupils’ mental health - why can’t a school promote both?

But since Gove was replaced by Nicky Morgan, a new window of opportunity for meaningful reform has opened. Following her appointment in 2014, Morgan has called on schools to promote resilience and protect pupil’s mental health when problems first arise. The Department for Education has made tentative steps in this direction, publishing advice on counselling in schools and announcing a new pilot scheme to link schools with NHS services.

However, much more needs to be done.

The only way to break the pressures on both mental health services and schools is to reinvest in early intervention services of the kind that local authorities and the NHS have been forced to cut over the last few years. But this time around there should be one major difference – there is a compelling case that services should be based largely inside schools.

There are strong arguments for why schools are best placed to provide mental health services. Schools see young people more than any other service, giving them a unique ability to get to hard-to-reach children and young people and build meaningful relationships with them over time. Studies have shown that children and young people largely prefer to see a counsellor in school rather than in an outside environment, and attendance rates for school-based services such as those provided by the charity Place2Be are often better than those for CAMHS. Young people have reported that for low-level conditions such as stress and anxiety, a clinical NHS setting can sometimes be daunting and off-putting.

There are already examples of innovative schools which combine mental health and wellbeing provision with a strong academic curriculum. For example, School 21 in East London dedicates 2.5 hours per week to wellbeing, creating opportunities for pastoral staff to identify problems as early as possible.

There is a huge opportunity for Nicky Morgan – as well as Labour’s shadow mental health minister Luciana Berger – to call for schools to be placed at the heart of a reconstructed early intervention infrastructure.

This will, though, require a huge cultural shift. Politicians, policymakers, commissioners and school leaders must be brave enough to make the leap in to reimagining schools as providers of health as well as education services.

Craig Thorley is a research fellow at IPPR, where he leads work on mental health. Follow him @craigjthorley