Notes on a Scandal

Should we protect vulnerable children in care? This, essentially, was the question being posed by Michael Gove on Friday 13th September 2013,

To intervene or not to intervene? That is the question..When children are suffering, we need to act..there is a direct responsibility to protect vulnerable children.’

For reasons I’ll probably never understand, It took a lot longer than you may expect to reach that conclusion.

Fourteen years ago, in the year 2000 I started a teaching job working in one of the most difficult areas of Birmingham, teaching some of the city’s most challenging young people, many of whom were to be children in local authority care. These children were no longer resident with their families for a variety of reasons – although abuse and neglect were often the root cause. They had been removed from their home environment for their own protection, because it had been deemed unsafe. Therefore, you would hope, they were now in a safer place.

However, as was noted by Mr Gove in September, the reality for many was (and is) somewhat different,

Those rescued from neglectful homes, and who have not found stable, loving families to care for them, should find security and support in children’s homes where they can enjoy a fresh start. But not all do. As we have been learning, through a series of horrific court cases, there are young people who were promised security in care who have been terribly exploited.’

Birmingham is the largest authority in the country. Huge and unwieldy, its Social Services department often struggles to cope. Indeed, it has been found wanting on several occasions. It also had – and still has – a huge population of children in care. More often than not, these are a desperate, disparate, displaced population of sad and damaged children. For some, teachers and other education staff are the only consistent figures in their lives. A couple of weeks into starting my new job I was sent less than a mile up the road to a children’s home to teach some children who were new to the area, and had no school place.

The children’s home in question was a Victorian, red-brick, Dickensian throwback of a building, precariously clinging to the edge of the busy ring road. I had no idea what to expect as I drove through the gateway to the car park. But that was the day I learned that the system was wrong. That day I learned that our ‘care system’ was anything but. That was the day that I first learned that children were being exploited under the very noses of authority and the authorities couldn’t – or didn’t – do anything about it.

I was ushered into the ‘Education Room’ of the children’s home. A miserable, cold, octagonal-shaped room with peeling paint and no books. My purpose, ostensibly, was to get some baseline numeracy and literacy assessments on two girls, aged fourteen and fifteen years, respectively. Two girls, who, like many teenagers, wore a look that suggested they were trying to appear older than they were. Made-up, overdressed, perfumed, hair carefully sculpted. They weren’t remotely interested in my carefully photocopied selection of assessment tests.

The girls wanted to distract me and chat. They wanted to tell me about their boyfriends, and how generous they were. They wanted to impress me with stories of how these ‘boyfriends’ had provided them with mobile phones, jewellery, condoms and make-up, how caring they were, how many gifts they showered upon them. Soon my naivety was dispelled, my smile became a bit too fixed. Inside, my blood ran cold. Something wasn’t right. I was right. Upon returning to my place of work, my (then) boss confirmed that both girls were suspected of having participated in pornographic films. The youngest ‘boyfriend’ was thought to have been in his thirties, but there were so many it was difficult to tell. Certainly, the fast-moving, secretive and identity-protecting world of kids in care made it difficult to pin anyone down, and the girls weren’t interested in naming names and pressing charges anyway.
That night I went home and cried. I remembered what being fifteen was like. I thought about how hard-done-by I felt when my Dad told me to go out and earn my pocket money, or when he took all my make-up away as punishment for some misdemeanour or another; or how upset I was when I missed the last bus home. Then I contrasted with what I’d just seen and heard. No comparison. No contest.

Over the next few years the stories just kept on coming. There was the children’s home out in the country, where the kids were meant to be kept safely away from the ‘dangers’ of the city – the place where girls were offering men oral sex for a doughnut.
Or, as Mr Gove put it in his speech,
We shielded the children from the authorities who needed to be looking out for them. An ‘out of sight, out of mind’ culture developed.”

Other cases I recall include the little 11 year old girl who looked every inch a child, yet was lured away from the children’s home that was supposed to be protecting her to the notorious ‘Newtown’ area of the city. There, she would spend her evenings in a high-rise flat, allegedly in the company of several much older men. Her biological father would often be the one who retrieved and returned her to the care home. She struggled, academically, but would still show up to school every day. Then there was the regular talk of ‘gangs’ of chip shop owners and workers, or taxi drivers who were known to be routinely targeting these girls, although, unfortunately, nothing that I ever heard about was ever pinned on them or proven.

Memorable for me was the ‘Child Protection’ review meeting I attended, where the harried social worker didn’t even know the child’s name. The child hadn’t been attending school and knew I would report on this. She almost got me excluded from the meeting on the grounds of her human rights. An irate phone-call from my manager ensured my presence at the meeting, but I sensed that nobody really cared. I honestly felt I was the only one at that meeting who really knew that girl. A poor report on her educational progress really was the very least of her issues.

Mr Gove said that it is “indefensible that almost half of children in homes are placed outside their local authority area, and more than a third over 20 miles away.” Last year I taught a girl who will now be twelve years old. She is one of identical twins, already separated by the authorities and living apart from her sister. When I last saw her, in July 2013, I was helping her to put her school books and paintings into the back of a taxi. At that time she didn’t know if she was about to be moved to Bath or Yorkshire. All she knew was that she knew nothing at all about either of those places, and certainly knew no-one there.

Shadowy darkness and secrecy will always provide good cover for criminal acts. Let’s now shine a light into the dark corners, give those who have reason to hide, nowhere to hide. We must do far more to protect these vulnerable children, and hold to account those who choose to exploit this vulnerability. One thing is certain, children who are resident in children’s homes have no reason to be ashamed. These children are already the victims of the poor choices and behaviour of the adults in their lives. Surely It’s right to do all we can to avoid them becoming victims all over again?

*I wrote this piece in September 2013. The fact that I chose not to put it on my own blog site, and instead had it published it anonymously on another website, probably goes some way towards explaining how scandals such as those now exposed in Rotherham have been allowed to happen. There is a definite culture of fear and secrecy surrounding these sensitive matters. How long can it possibly be before a similar story emerges in Birmingham, I wonder?

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21 Responses to Notes on a Scandal

  1. @cazzwebbo says:

    Excellent piece. Very sad that it has to be written

    Like

  2. Bill says:

    Well done for writing this blog. The more people who work to throw light on and expose the vile sick behaviour of the people who exploit the vulnerable young the more people in positions of resposibilitiy and authority will come under pressure to “do their job properly.”

    Like

  3. cstimmo says:

    Reblogged this on The Aeolian Harp and commented:
    Chilling stuff, but not a shock really, which is appalling.

    Like

  4. andrewsabisky says:

    Some passing questions;

    1: who are these people who go into child protection/social work? What are their avowed motivations? What are their real motivations? What are their IQs and educational qualifications? What are the burn-out rates and why? What would take it get higher quality people doing this kind of work (if that is thought desirable)?

    2: More generally, why is the care system so godawful? Everyone’s solution to the care system appears to be “make sure children spend less time in care, speed up adoption etc”. This is admirable and sensible, but it gives the impression that government etc have essentially given up on making the care system any better. What is the thinking here? Why is reform judged impossible, if that is really what’s going on?

    3: the abusers. Pakistani men, largely. Ethnocentrism & racism are just facts of life and there’s good reason (IMO) to suspect they are part of our evolved biology. The Pakistani community is far more genetically interlinked than most other minority cultures – and hence more hostile to outsiders? (on that note – time to ban cousin marriage? Would eventually save the NHS a bunch of money on birth defects, and outbreeding is good in the long run for inter-cultural relations) Perhaps I am over-stressing the ethnocentrism angle, however; what about rape rates (especially of adolescent girls) in Pakistan itself? How do they compare to the offending rates of Pakistani men in this country? Data appear to be scanty on this important question.

    4. The kids. Were there kids who did not fall for the nets laid out for them? If so, what’s different about the circumstances of those children? How can we make those differences the norm?

    5. On the technological side, what would it take to integrate social work, policing, and teaching to tackle the complex problems associated with these children? In a sense this lack of any kind of coherent inter-agency approach to difficult problems is endemic across the public sector anyway. How to fix?

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    • cazzypot2013 says:

      Lots of questions there, Andrew. I’m afraid I don’t have any answers. Maybe other readers of the blog may be able to provide some answers. I did write a blog some time ago which focused on Birmingham social services dept and the impact of multiple failed Ofsted inspections. The conclusions here were that Birmingham would not get better by being shamed by Ofsted. In fact, the constant labelling as ‘failing’ made it impossible to recruit the best social workers..thus compounding the whole problem. (See: ‘Ofsted, the medicine that kills’). There are steps being taken in Birmingham to integrate the Children’s services. Unfortunately, this has not always been entirely successful so far…time will tell. Thank you once again for the great comment, Andrew.

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  6. John Hemming says:

    http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmhansrd/cm070726/debtext/70726-0008.htm

    We must ask why arbitrary bureaucratic rules prevent children in care from making toast for each other but do not allow people to prevent them from acting as youth prostitutes. Will she look into the treatment of children in care, including the activities they are allowed to be involved in?

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    • cazzypot2013 says:

      A very good point indeed. Also worth querying why children in care are allowed to come and go as they please? If children’s homes are truly ‘in loco parentis’, then staff should surely be able to keep underage kids in the building overnight, for eg? Thank you very much for taking the time to read and respond.

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  7. Mark Rogers says:

    Rotherham has reminded me of many issues, of which three recur frequently.

    Firstly, we so so rarely consider sufficiently the deeper questions the deeper reasons for these things happening – ie why (not how) is abuse too often ignored, misunderstood or condoned? And I don’t just mean amongst professionals; this is a societal question. Which may be why it’s easier to focus on blaming professionals and the systems in which they work – a whole lot simpler than tackling human motivations and behaviour. But we are going to have to face up – as we are starting to do with another of the endemic abuses, namely domestic violence – to the reality that the long term solutions to CSE don’t lie solely (or even largely) with the constant chastisement and reformation of the various professions (appropriate though that may be at times). It seems to me that the failings of public services are the symptom not the cause of a wider societal malaise – but, of course, it’s easier to tackle professional failure than societal dysfunction.

    Secondly, we really aren’t yet comfortable as a society in dealing with with our own ignorance and fears about ethnic and/or religious differences. For some (possibly many) the fear of causing offence is greater than the fear of tackling a difficult issues or situation.

    Thirdly, when it comes to professionals (I include myself in that category as a qualified, if “resting”, teacher) we just haven’t paid enough attention to the importance of selection by values – and, therefore, attitudes and behaviours. My teacher training gave me some sufficient initial technical competences, along with some basic knowledge and understanding of child development and psychology, to let me loose in the classroom. But my recruitment to the PGCE course – and every teaching job I ever subsequently secured – never once seriously addressed the matter of my values. Oh yes, lots of psychometrics over the years, but no formal “values-based recruitment”. We should not, therefore, be surprised that some children’s services professionals do not have empathy with children.

    These are the deeper issues in my view that need attention. And when we don’t, then how can we be surprised that abuse continues.

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    • cazzypot2013 says:

      I agree with you, Mark. I was only saying to someone yesterday that this focus on who is to blame for the abuse: the criminal perpetrators. Having said all that, I do think that those charged with protecting these children must do so. In loco parentis must mean that we offer the same level of protection to kids in care as we would with our own children. As I said in the blog, the kids are already victims of the bad behaviour of adults in their lives…they shouldn’t go into ‘care’ and then become victims all over again. I worry – as I’m sure you must too – that it’s only a matter of time before a similar story to Rotherham emerges in Birmingham.
      Thank you so much for taking the time and offering such a lengthy and reasoned response.

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    • cazzypot2013 says:

      *sorry, I meant to say that this focus on council leaders is in danger of taking attention away from the perpetrators – the criminals who’ve committed the acts of abuse.

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  8. Mark Rogers says:

    Yes, I agree that professionals must do all they can – but they’re not the total solution (especially if they don’t have the empathy needed for their roles). At the same time we need to find ways to alter society’s attitudes and tolerances – let’s learn from DV (although it’s still early days) where I think the public’s views are changing slowly.

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  9. Pingback: Mark Rogers (Chief Exec of Birmingham City Council) Responds to my Blog ‘Notes on a Scandal’ | cazzypotsblog

  10. Toby says:

    Reblogged this on Speaker's Corner.

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  11. Regarding Andrew Sabisky’s point 3 above I would like to make the point that single snapshot cultural labels are rarely accurate or helpful in the hyperdiverse UK. There is considerable ongoing research regarding complex language/attitudes and behaviours both within and across social groups, factoring in ethnicity, gender, class, faith and other variables. Understanding these is key to pragmatic, outcome focussed analysis. In view of this I am personally quite disturbed by the terms and assumptions in his text

    “3: the abusers. Pakistani men, largely. Ethnocentrism & racism are just facts of life and there’s good reason (IMO) to suspect they are part of our evolved biology. The Pakistani community is far more genetically interlinked than most other minority cultures – and hence more hostile to outsiders? (on that note – time to ban cousin marriage? Would eventually save the NHS a bunch of money on birth defects, and outbreeding is good in the long run for inter-cultural relations) Perhaps I am over-stressing the ethnocentrism angle, however; what about rape rates (especially of adolescent girls) in Pakistan itself? How do they compare to the offending rates of Pakistani men in this country? Data appear to be scanty on this important question.”

    It does not belittle either the suffering of these children or our righteous anger about the failure to protect them at every level if we also ensure we remember that statistically, children are much more likely to be abused by white men (and occasionally complicit white women). When this is reported in the media, I do not recall headlines starting ‘White Christian men …. ‘ and rightly so.

    Suzanne Moore has written very powerfully and astutely on this issue. I recommend it

    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/27/poor-children-seen-as-worthless-rotherham-abuse-scandal

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    • cazzypot2013 says:

      Thank you so much for commenting, Diane. It’s great to get a range of opinions and viewpoints on these matters, I think. I’ve invited Andrew to respond to your comment, as I feel It’s not right for me to answer on his behalf. I’ll certainly read the Suzanne Moore link you’ve sent. Thank you again for responding.

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    • Andrew Sabisky says:

      just think about prior probability & Bayes’s theorem. Something would be incredibly wrong if white men were not the majority of sex offenders, given that whites are some 87% of the population (and nearly all sex offenders are male). This is trivially true and entirely uninteresting; what is interesting is if a particular group is disproportionately represented in crime statistics relative to their actual frequency in the total population. Is that actually the case? Well, in this instance my impression is that this is so, given that Rotherham-style incidents have been reported in many other towns and cities, but I don’t actually know the statistics. Generally sexual abuse statistics tend to be highly contested and of dubious reliability, which is understandable given the inherent problems of measurement (which are vast for obvious reasons). Nevertheless I suggest that some attention is paid to getting reliable data so that we can better understand what is really going on, rather than relying on ultimately impressionistic reports.

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