Can anyone with any shred of decency not be left feeling desolate and driven to righteous anger by the news from Rotherham? At least 1400 girls, some as young as eleven, repeatedly gang raped, abducted, prostituted, beaten, intimidated, made to watch pornography of the most vile kind, even doused in petrol and threatened with immolation. How could this have gone unchallenged, here in Britain, for at least sixteen years?
The most distressing lines we read in this story must surely be those which describe how officials at Rotherham Council and the police believed some of these desperate and abused girls were making ‘lifestyle choices.’ Worse, that they even regarded some of these child victims ‘with contempt.’ It is incredible to think anyone involved in child protection could ever think this way. There’s liberal and then there’s utterly loony liberal. I seriously question the state of mind of anyone who thinks a child under the age of sixteen can make a sound decision about what must at best – if you really stretch the boundaries of incredulity and notions of ‘consent’ – have been deeply exploitative and sado-masochistic ‘relationships,’ a word I’m really reluctant to use in this context.
If professionals really become so hardened to or so blasé about their work that they start to think like this, then it’s time to end the role they play in making final decisions about an at-risk child’s welfare and push for a seismic shift in attitude and accountability at local government level.
I was a Councillor in the London Borough of Merton at the time Tia Sharp was murdered by Stuart Hazell, her grandmother’s partner and previously her mother’s boyfriend. While the report following Tia’s death concluded opportunities to delve more deeply into Tia’s chaotic family life had been missed, it ultimately absolved anyone of any responsibility.
I was astonished: in my opinion – albeit with the benefit of hindsight – there had been several obvious red flags waving when it came to the risk Tia was in, warning signs that had not been acted upon.
She was missing school; Hazell had at least 30 convictions for offences involving drugs and violence; his relationship with both mother and grandmother successively seemed unnatural to me to say the least. I questioned all these matters in a private meeting with the Cabinet member responsible and Council officers before the report was released to the press. “We see a lot worse,” was basically the justification given, that and “lots of people use drugs and lots of people lead odd lives, and they don’t kill children.”
This is of course very true; ultimately, the only person responsible for Tia’s death was the murderous Stuart Hazell. However the UKIP-Independent coalition I led at the time didn’t think this or the usual ‘lesson’s learned’ mantra, which I see Keith Vaz MP is trotting out again this morning, was good enough.
How many opportunities have we had to learn lessons and how often does this keep happening?Disquieted by a nagging feeling that professionals in child-protection roles were becoming immune to what the rest of us might see as clear ‘wake-up’ calls, we thought Councillors should play a more active role in child protection cases, not least because we felt it necessary in order to discharge our duties as ‘Corporate Parents’ with overarching responsibilities for the safety of children in the borough.
My fellow Councillor, Richard Chellew, addressed the issue and asked to read through the records of children currently known to social workers. He was refused point blank on grounds of confidentiality, which was fair enough, so Richard suggested he might see the files but with names and addresses removed? The answer was again ‘no,’ this time on the basis that an ordinary Councillor ‘would not be skilled enough to understand the cases or know what [we] were doing.’
“I asked again, suggesting that two Councillors who had children and so might be expected to know more about the issues could take a look,” Richard told me, but again the answer was: “No, only the experts can deal with these sorts of things.”
“28 experts missed 60 opportunities to save Baby P,” Richard remonstrated. “Had I seen that file, and all the occasions when his family denied access to him, I would have called the police and, if I had made a mistake, I would have apologised for my error on the grounds of being better safe than sorry,” he argued.
“At that point,” he says, “everyone looked at me as if I was mad.”
Neither Richard nor I could see any reason why, if names and address (and in the wake of Rotherham I would suggest references to ethnicity) are withheld, Councillors should not peruse child-protection case files and felt an ‘unprofessional’ eye not hardened by cases of extreme abuse might well help.
Given that in the wake of Tia Sharp’s murder we had been told that Council didn’t have the resources to follow up every case in the borough where children are living in difficult circumstances, surely that is a good argument to get others’ involved?Involving Councillors we felt would also help prevent the curse of decision making by committee, which dictates that those acting with the support and collaboration of others are far less likely to take radical decisions than an individual who knows he or she will be personally held to account. It’s a natural human response.
Perhaps an individual Councillor risking the wrath of the electorate might not be quite so prepared to give a troublesome parent the benefit of the doubt?We know some Councillors in Rotherham demanded information about domestic violence cases so they could interfere and try and organise reconciliations in inappropriate circumstances, so clearly this approach is not fool-proof approach. But it does at least bring in another level of direct accountability.
Perhaps Councillors could be joined by a panel of lay-assessors? I think it is at least worth a try.Some people are either incapable or unwilling to be good parents and others will always want to exploit children for their own warped and sadistic ends.
We will probably never be able to keep all of our children safe all of the time, but if we made child-protection part of the democratic process, the system would be more robust and allow voters to really hold Councils to account. Then at least these appalling cases might not make quite so many or quite such terrifying headlines.
Suzanne Evans is Deputy Chairman of UKIP