Child sexual exploitation in Rotherham and the need to listen

After many months of thorough investigation there was no room for doubt when Louise Casey concluded in her inspection report on Rotherham Borough Council that it “wasn’t fit for purpose”.

Most people reading this blog will be aware of the scandal concerning child sexual exploitation in the borough and the findings of the Jay report.  Now, we have Louise Casey’s own inspection, which was commissioned by Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles.

Many pages and hours of radio and TV debate have been devoted to the failure of the Council to grasp issues around the numbers of crimes, the lack of action for the frightening numbers of victims and a suggested misplaced political correctness towards a section of a local community from which the perpetrators came.

“I don’t know why…”

During an interview with the BBC the day after the report was published – by which time Mr Pickles had declared his takeover of the Borough – the first councillor to speak publicly used the phrase in reply to many questions put by the BBC radio 5 interviewer: “I don’t know why ….”

The first time he uttered the phrase I stopped typing and raised an eyebrow, by the sixth and seventh time I started to feel uncomfortable. Four years a councillor in Rotherham and that was his position!

From experience let me offer the following:

In many serious case reviews the issue of communication is identified as having failed when children and adults die or suffer serious and unnecessary harm.

Lack of communication is at the heart of the scandal

Communication is a core issue at the heart of the Rotherham scandal. One of the problems in the delivery of communication is very often in the receiving. Listening properly is a skill that needs to be practiced; any trained interviewer whether police officer, social worker or probation officer will agree.

Nevertheless, listening was clearly not on the agenda for Rotherham councillors when in 2012 The Times newspaper first exposed the horror of this scandal. Rotherham councillors chose then to explain the story as a Murdoch-inspired political attack on the Labour Council.

They chose, for political reasons, not to listen, but the sexual exploitation of children is not and never should be a political issue. More evidence – if ever we needed it – that democracy needs a free press.

On many occasions I have publicly stated I do not believe the overwhelming majority of public sector safeguarding professionals deliberately turn up to do a poor day’s work or to intentionally fail victims. They do the opposite; with energy and commitment, on many occasions against the huge odds stacked against them. Knowing many social workers, healthcare workers, police officers and other professional colleagues, I suggest the majority of the frontline safeguarding professionals and public servants who have worked in Rotherham will be no different –some however may need to reflect on what they did or didn’t do.

The council was not listening to its professionals

I suspect many frontline safeguarding professionals in this instance will have tried to articulate concerns through some form of communication with those leading their organisations. Referrals, supervision and case conferences all seem likely in the circumstances. But the council was not listening to its professionals. Even if odd decisions were being made by some within practice, the council should still have listened and challenged with integrity, on behalf of their local communities.

Policing is in no way perfect and South Yorkshire Police have their own questions to ask and answer. But there are robust and dynamic lines of communication in the majority of forces I have worked with, connecting the thin blue frontline to those of the most senior ranks. A community constable or a Community Support Officer can expect their involvement in, or views about, a given incident or issue to be seen by the appropriate manager within short periods of time.

It is not unusual, through well established lines-of-command, for Chief Officers in Superintending or ACPO ranks to be briefed out of hours when important enough. This provides the dynamic checks and balances all organisations need and allows experience and knowledge to support and challenge operational behaviour.

When delivering consulting support to safeguarding partnerships and local authorities, one key recommendation to them is to ensure a partnership escalation policy is agreed, through the safeguarding boards. This provides all practitioners with the route to challenge, especially when engaged in integrated inter-professional practice.

The voice of the victim is key

These examples of communication lines are critical in the support of risk-based activities such as safeguarding. They also ensure one very important voice is heard and acted upon – not the professional who is trying to explain their fears or concerns, not the manager or organisation that is frustrated at some practice or other, not the politician who is worried about votes and re-election; it is the voice of the victim, child or adult.

How the voice of the child in Rotherham has been ignored is a tragedy. I doubt, however, it is through a failure of the majority of frontline professionals to try to shout about it. It appears that it was the listening skills that failed to translate the messages into activity. Listening can be turned off for a variety of reasons and not all are helpful.

Throughout my police service I held to the concept of serving without ‘fear or favour’. It means you try to do your utmost for the public in any circumstance even when your own life is at risk. Many police officers have suffered as a result and some have paid the ultimate price. Policing is not political. Police and Crime Commissioners who are elected and pseudo-politicians do not hold sway over the operational arena. Chief Constables who are not worried about the next election do, thank goodness.

So why did the elected officers of Rotherham Council fail to listen and act? Whatever the reason, Ms Casey and Mr Pickles clearly agreed they were not up to the job and so needed to be replaced.

The wider issue across our communities is how do we ensure our democratically elected representatives listen and act without fear or favour? Is Rotherham unique or should we consider the wider questions it raises about accountability and doing the right thing when in positions of power?

If we close our ears to the wider challenges we will find it as hard as ever to ensure the voice of the victim, child or vulnerable adult, is ever heard.