It is hard to read the report on the sexual abuse of children in Rotherham England. It details years of abuse involving 1400 children. The scale of this abuse is, in some ways, unthinkable. Yet, there it is. The report summarizes the abuse by saying:
“In just over a third of cases, children affected by sexual exploitation were previously known to services because of child protection and neglect. It is hard to describe the appalling nature of the abuse that child victims suffered. They were raped by multiple perpetrators, trafficked to other towns and cities in the north of England, abducted, beaten, and intimidated. There were examples of children who had been doused in petrol and threatened with being set alight, threatened with guns, made to witness brutally violent rapes and threatened they would be next if they told anyone. Girls as young as 11 were raped by large numbers of male perpetrators”
Shocking is only word I can think of to describe the scale of abuse identified in the Rotherham Report. But, the real story is how leaders in agencies that were meant to protect and investigate failed to provide the direction needed. For example, the report states:
“Within social care, the scale and seriousness of the problem was underplayed by senior managers. At an operational level, the Police gave no priority to CSE, regarding many child victims with contempt and failing to act on their abuse as a crime. Further stark evidence came in 2002, 2003 and 2006 with three reports known to the Police and the Council, which could not have been clearer in their description of the situation in Rotherham. The first of these reports was effectively suppressed because some senior officers disbelieved the data it contained. This had led to suggestions of cover-up. The other two reports set out the links between child sexual exploitation and drugs, guns and criminality in the Borough. These reports were ignored and no action was taken to deal with the issues that were identified in them.”
Here was evidence of abuse that was not given credence. Far too often, victims of sexual abuse fail to disclose what happens. One of the reasons is that they are convinced (often by the perpetrators) that they will not be believed. Therefore, nothing will happen. This was the case here.
The report goes on to state:
“In the early 2000s, a small group of professionals from key agencies met and monitored large numbers of children known to be involved in CSE or at risk but their managers gave little help or support to their efforts. Some at a senior level in the Police and children’s social care continued to think the extent of the problem, as described by youth workers, was exaggerated, and seemed intent on reducing the official numbers of children categorised as CSE.”
What should we take from such a devastating review of child protection? There is much but the lessons of leadership truly stand out. It is evident that the leaders made sure that the cases did not get addressed. They created the environment where the children could not tell. Those who knew in the community were also dismissed. The power structures operated in a way that implicitly gave permission for the abuse to continue.
Staff began to reflect the views of the power structure. To go against leadership is very difficult. People feel that their careers are at risk – employment, promotions and work opportunities. As well, rocking the boat in an organization can lead to isolation from colleagues.
The period covered in the report is from 1997-2013. This is crucial as it was not a period of denial in society about the reality of child sexual abuse. By then, there were many well known examples of sexual abuse in the media.
This may have been a case though where the scale of the allegations were seen as too fantastic to be true. How could that have occurred one might have thought. It is vital in child protection that we are open to thinking about the unthinkable. Human behaviors exist on a broad scale that goes from highly empathic to psychopathic. In the right circumstances, even apparently sane people can do the insane – think of the abuses at the Abu Grhaib prison where a lack of good leadership led to behaviors that had not been typical of many of the guards.
Could Rotherham have been stopped with better leadership? Quite possibly, although one can never predict that with any certainty. However, if leaders are prepared to support their staff investigating even the politically difficult cases, then there is greater hope that sexual abuse will be uncovered.
The United Kingdom offers us another example in the case of Jimmy Savile, a radio personality that garnered much respect and power. It turns out that he had numerous sexual abuse victims that he was able to access through his celebrity status and work. People seemed to have been blinded by who he was.
Sexual abuse outside the family is often perpetrated by those who are in positions of trust with children – either through institutional power (priests, teachers, by scout leaders) or through access because of positions that they hold (such as Jimmy Savile). In child protection, when we are prepared to think the unthinkable, then we create space for a victim to tell the story.
Victims who disclose do so in many less than direct ways – through behaviors or by telling the secret to a friend with a promise not to pass the secret on. The friend fails to do that and discloses. Yes, there are some victims who disclose directly but many do not. That is one of the reasons why the child protection, police, health care workers and others must be open to hearing. Then, their leaders must be willing to support action. In Rotham, that did not happen.