Now the dust is beginning to settle on this year’s general election the focus shifts from what was promised in manifestos, to what will be delivered in government.
Over the course of the last parliament we saw the scale of child sexual exploitation in this country laid bare. We all watched with revulsion as the scandals of Rotherham and Oxford played out in the court rooms and the media. The political fallout has been intense; something the new Government know all too well, as it was a Conservative minister who sent the commissioners into Rotherham Council.
There is a tendency in government is to consider a problem to be solved once a political decision has been made. But we cannot afford to be complacent in tackling child sexual exploitation. Just the other week a trial started at the Old Bailey of 11 men accused of grooming and exploiting girls in Aylesbury – this isn’t a problem that is going to go away.
It seems to be an accepted conceit that child sexual exploitation occurs mainly against white girls, in northern towns. This, along with stereotyping perpetrators, is not only wrong but extremely dangerous; ignoring the complexity of this crime risks letting abusers slip through the net.
Barnardo’s worked with more than 3,000 children across 47 locations in the UK last year, a rise of nearly 50 per cent on the year before. When we say that this is a crime that can affect any child, from any walk of life, from any part of the country, politicians should be listening and acting. Whenever and wherever we open a service we find children needing our help.
If we also accept that any child can fall victim to grooming then it follows that all children must be armed with an awareness of the risk. Much of the work done by our specialist services involves giving at-risk children the knowledge and tools to stay safe.
They need to be wise to the process an abuser goes through to manipulate a young person. This may involve giving gifts, alcohol, cigarettes, accommodation and providing emotional support, such as lavishing attention and making them feel special. Once that level of trust has been built up, it is then that the behaviour of the abuser changes.
It is abundantly clear to us that children simply aren’t currently getting the necessary education they need in schools to identify what makes a healthy relationship. It is undoubtedly a hard thing to talk about and teach appropriately, but it is vital that it takes place if we are to prevent this abuse.
Therefore what we must have, absolutely and without question, is a political commitment for all children to receive age appropriate sex and relationship education in school. These lessons should focus on consent but also teach young people about the crime of child sexual exploitation, how to spot the risks and stay safe. Children are never to blame for their abuse but we can take steps to ensure they know how to keep themselves safe.
But it is not just children who need educating. There is still an alarming lack of awareness amongst professionals and the wider public about child sexual exploitation, how it is perpetrated and how it manifests itself. It shouldn’t take a scandal on the scale of Rotherham to prompt action from the local authority and community.
With the right support children who have suffered this abuse can go on to lead happy and productive lives. The memory of the exploitation will never leave them of course, but Barnardo’s services have had phenomenal success stories of young people who have thrived despite their terrible experiences. This work is vital, but we wish we didn’t have to do it. It must be combined with stronger attempts at prevention so we can see an end to this horrific abuse
We can’t continue to lurch from one scandal to another; acting only once the damage has been done. We can’t think that this is something that happens in certain areas or to certain people. Sex and relationship education isn’t a panacea and must be combined with the preventative measures, but if we do this we will enable more children to spot the tricks used by abusers and be wise to their attempts to manipulate them.
As the old saying goes: forearmed is forewarned.