“They forgot about the person being hurt”: Are social services failing black and Asian child abuse victims?

Children from ethnic minority backgrounds are less likely to speak out about their experiences, a new report says.

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Children from ethnic minority backgrounds who are sexually abused are less likely to speak out about their experiences and to receive the support they need from institutions, according to a report.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, working in collaboration with the Race Equality Foundation, has published new research analysing the views and experiences of over 80 individuals across a range of ethnic minority communities, including victims and survivors. The report signposted key areas of concern including barriers to disclosure, negative experiences of institutions, and a lack of support for survivors.

In some instances, the research found, survivors of abuse had their accounts played down or even ignored, thanks to the prevalence of inaccurate and unhelpful cultural stereotypes.

For example, one female focus group participant commented: “The social worker [who dealt with my case] was white, OK, and she said to me, ‘This is not sexual abuse. This is your culture.’ Even today, I’m so traumatised by this.”

A lack of diversity within the social care profession, some study participants suggested, contributed to a lack of awareness of what is and isn’t true of certain cultures, and to a misguided commitment to giving abusers the benefit of the doubt. “I just wish social services barged in and took me into care,” another study participant said. “But they were so intent on not coming across [as] racist or culturally insensitive that they forgot about the person that was being hurt here.”

According to the latest figures available from Gov.UK, of the 31,720 registered children and family social workers employed by local authorities in England, over two-thirds (71.7 per cent) are white British.

One social worker, who is based in east London and preferred not to be named, said that while everyone is susceptible to “some blind spots”, particularly in a profession such as social care, people needed to work harder to overcome these. Working in a big city, they said, meant that the diversity of their workforce was “a bit better” than elsewhere, but they agreed that a broader range of insights could help improve the service. They added: “You’re encouraged to think about your privileges [in training], but maybe that becomes harder in practice, sometimes due to lack of time. But this report is a probably a call for social care to pull its socks up and get better.”

Some study participants, meanwhile, believed that they’d have more to lose than gain if they reported their experiences. Indeed, some were fearful that their accounts would be met with confirmation bias by a social worker, and with disapproval from the community from which they came. “I was thinking that there's a lot of pressure on the survivor not to speak, by their families, of bringing shame to the family and that shame to the community,” one girl in the focus group said. “There's also a sense that white people see us as bad and now you're showing them how bad you are.” 

Is the approach to social care in the UK too generalist? The social worker from east London told me that austerity has “definitely” led to services being scaled back. And although they accepted that recruiting more specialists for “every single” culture or community would be a stretch, they argued that even having access to “some” specialists, in a consultancy context, would be helpful. “I think there should be a good core of knowledge across all social workers, on all cultures and backgrounds, but it would be good to have a specialist that you can go to, [as and when you need to], to help with your thought process, and to get a sense-check.”

Survivors of child sexual abuse can share their experiences with the Inquiry's Truth Project in writing or over the phone. Visit www.truthproject.org.uk or email share@iicsa.org.uk.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman

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