The report by the Deputy Children’s Commissioner has rightly been described as a wakeup call – not just because the numbers of children who are at risk of abuse runs to over 16,000 according to the report, but because it challenges some of the myths about child abuse that have been repeated across the media in recent weeks and months.
The first is the importance of not being alarmist. The fact that child exploitation happens at all is a serious concern, but the point made by this report is not that child sexual exploitation is happening everywhere – simply that it can happen anywhere – and as a consequence we need to be proactive in recognising and tackling it.
This begs the question, who is “we”? In response to tragic cases of child abuse it is common to focus on the failure of frontline professionals who are supposed to protect them but the report, with its helpful checklist of warning signs, lays the responsibility to keep children safe not just at their door, but with the public as well.
It is clear from recent high profile cases, in Rochdale or involving Jimmy Savile, that collectively we are not good enough at responding to children, particularly older teenagers, who are often labelled as promiscuous or troublesome rather than vulnerable young people. This produces a culture in which some children are blamed for their own abuse. As the report shows clearly, children cannot consent to their own exploitation.
But nobody could read this report without wanting to know how to prevent such appalling abuse from happening in the first place. That is why the role of the public is so crucially important. The NSPCC, which deals with calls to its adult helpline, makes the point that often the general public does not understand what constitutes abuse. That is why the Government should build on the report with a public awareness campaign to help parents, friends, and young people themselves, to identify sexual exploitation and know how and where to report it.
It is a common feature of exploitation to present abusive behaviour as loving and supportive. The report shows that children who are groomed or sexually exploited do not necessarily recognise their treatment as abuse and have little understanding of what sexual exploitation looks like. It is devastating that so many young people do not know the difference between good relationships and exploitative ones. The report also highlights child-on-child exploitation, so we must urgently equip children with the tools they need to recognise abusive behaviour. Labour’s pledge to introduce compulsory sex and relationship education is part of the solution – an essential plank of a coherent strategy to tackle child sexual exploitation, focused on prevention.
Finally the report makes an important and powerful point about the danger of focusing on ethnicity, age or gender. Despite recent high profile cases featuring Pakistani men, we know that child exploitation happens in all communities. Around 10 per cent of the victims identified by the Children’s Commissioner were boys. The majority of the perpetrators were white, and some were children themselves. While we should not shy away from investigating child abuse in any community, if we look at child exploitation as anything other than an appalling abuse of power we risk overlooking child victims who do not fit a preconceived stereotypical image.
A Government source was reported as saying that it was “difficult to overstate the contempt” with which ministers viewed the report’s conclusions. The report has also been called “hysterical” and “highly emotional” by senior Whitehall figures in this morning’s press. Yet it sets out the complex reality of child sexual exploitation – often extremely violent, lasting over months and years, involving victims who are moved across boundaries and overlooked by the public and professionals that come into contact with them. The devastating and enduring impact on victims and their families deserves a co-ordinated national response that gives children, the public and professionals the knowledge and confidence to take action. In this context perhaps the biggest wakeup call is to government. This report shows that turning a blind eye to child abuse is simply not an option.
Lisa Nandy is Labour MP for Wigan