Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse:
A Lost Opportunity
By Ruth Beecher and Joanna Bourke
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), whose report was released last week, has missed an opportunity to make a real difference for sexually exploited children and young people. Their conclusions are a damning indictment of the lack of care given to children and young people who are sexually exploited. They remark upon “extensive failures by local authorities and police forces to keep pace with the pernicious and changing problem of the sexual exploitation of children by networks”. But while the report robustly exposes the magnitude of the problem of sexual abuse of children by organized networks, it fails to provide adequate solutions.
In 2015, distinguished academics and barristers Professor Alexis Jay (Chair), Professor Sir Malcolm Evans, Ivor Frank, and Drusilla Sharpling were tasked with exploring the extent and nature of child sexual exploitation in Durham, Swansea, Warwickshire, St Helens, Bristol, and Tower Hamlets (London). It was a daunting job. Child sexual exploitation is a hidden problem, and not only because sexually abusive men are careful to choose the most vulnerable victims and often engage in elaborate “grooming” practices. The crime is also obscured by criminal justice and social care systems that fail to collect the appropriate data and file it in ways that can facilitate tracking and analysis. Instances of child sexual exploitation are routinely folded into the broader category of child criminal exploitation. The result is serious levels of under-identification and under-reporting.
The IICSA report makes many astute observations. They lament the absence of data. They call for additional information about perpetrator groups. They insist that more attention needs to be paid to ways to identify the early signs of child sexual exploitation. Teachers as well as health experts (particularly GPs and community nurses) have important roles to play since they are often the first professionals to potentially observe deteriorating well-being and behavioural changes. But, the IICSA committee notes, these professionals often lack the skills to identify children at risk; they routinely fail to take proactive approaches, perhaps scared-off by historical scandals such as the ones in Rochdale and Rotherham. Ethnic sensitivities are also pronounced. The report cites the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse’s devastating admission that professional groups sometimes express a “fear of being viewed as culturally insensitive” and a “fear of intrusion into cultures that are different from the dominant”. As a result, children’s social care services delay providing help.
The report clearly shows that some children are at a greater risk of being sexual abused by organized networks than others. These include children in residential care, with disabilities, from ethnic minority backgrounds, and those who identify as LGBTQ+. Children in care are one of the most disempowered groups in society. Especially vulnerable are children placed into care outside of their geographical area (this constitute over 40 per cent of children in care) and those who are sent to “unregulated placements” (for example, accommodated in hostels, bedsits or flats, and sometimes even in caravans or tents). Children with disabilities are another high-risk category. They are socially isolated, lack adequate sex education, and are susceptible to grooming. Reporting abuse is similarly difficult for children from ethnic minority backgrounds, who are often highly distrustful of the authorities. This is not unexpected since social and care workers are predominantly white. For example, more than 40 per cent of children in the North-East are from ethnic minorities, compared with fewer than five per cent of staff in statutory services. There is also a hierarchy of victims, with less attention paid to sexually abused boys and LGBTQ+ children, amongst whom social media and dating apps are particularly prominent in facilitating abuse.
The most powerful sections in the IICSA’s report explore the insidious effect of language, the criminalization of children, and deeply embedded cultures of denial. The report reveals multiple ways in which sexual abused children are blamed for their own violation. Even if there is evidence of “grooming” and the victims are well under the age of consent, their sexual activities with considerably older men are listed as “consensual”. Children are treated as though they have simply made “poor lifestyle choices”. Comments that a child “engaged in risky behaviour” or “placed himself at risk” subtly places responsibility on the victim. It is shocking to be reminded that abused children are often charged with sexual offences. This has huge effects for them later in life since they will have to disclose having a criminal record when applying for jobs. Within institutions responsible for safeguarding children, cultures of denial are widespread. Local authorities are keen not to be compared to Rochdale or Rotherham.
The IICSA has done a thorough job of revealing the extent of the problem of child sexual exploitation. But the solutions proposed are shallow, placing weight on “strengthening” criminal justice systems, updating governmental guidance, banning unregulated placements, and collecting more data. The IICSA’s belief that harsher penalties for offenders who coerce, manipulate, or deceive children into sexual activities will deter sexually aggressive men is unwarranted. Perpetrators don’t think that what they are doing is “very wrong” and, if they do, don’t believe that their vulnerable victims will be able to plausibly report them. Carceral approaches haven’t worked in the past; they won’t work today. In addition, the IICSA places too much faith in the power of “guidelines” to reduce and eventually eradicate abuse. Anyone who knows the history of official and independent enquires knows that providing new instructions and procedures are lazy ways to solve deeply engrained problems. There is a long history of enquiries into child sexual abuse – all of which have recommended the publication of lengthy guidelines – yet, little has changed. Indeed, even the IICSA suggests that the extent of abuse is growing.
More to the point, the report says nothing about underlying factors that facilitate abuse.
They observe that many sexually abused children have “experienced parental neglect, substance misuse, domestic violence and family breakdown”. But they don’t follow this up with any comment about poverty and the appalling lack of adequate facilities and services for children and adolescents in these communities. Demand for children’s social care services has soared, with English councils forced to spent £770 million more than budgeted in 2018/19, but funds for early intervention have been cut by almost two-thirds in the last decade. Millions have been cut from universal services such as youth clubs. In December 2021, for example, the YMCA claimed that there had been a 74 per cent fall (in real terms) in funding for youth services since 2010/11. This adds up to a loss of over £1.1bn for young people. As Denise Hatton (Chief Executive of the YMCA for England and Wales), put it, youth services “exist to provide a sense of belonging, a safe space, and the opportunity for some of the most vulnerable young people in the country to enjoy being young. They also offer young people the chance to confide in youth workers and trusted adults outside of their family or school about any worries or anxieties they may have, thereby providing an invaluable opportunity for early intervention”. The IICSA report is an indictment of the underlying reasons why children and young people are vulnerable to sexual exploitation by organized networks. Coupled with a lack of a sense of responsibility for protecting children that goes beyond specialist agencies, their recommendations will fail to make any difference.
For the full report, go to our “Resources” page at https://shame.bbk.ac.uk/resources/