The scale of child abuse and the culture revealed in Rotherham has shocked the country, and quite rightly so.
At Barnardo’s we have been supporting sexually exploited children and campaigning on their behalf for over 20 years.
Sadly, the revelations coming out of Rotherham are all too familiar to us from our experience of working in this field long-term.
For far too long this horrific form of child abuse went under the radar. In the case of Rotherham the facts are shameful – how could it be that, for 16 years, vicious sexual predators were free to prey on an estimated 1,400 vulnerable children?
Let me make one thing clear: there is absolutely no excuse for the systemic failings we have seen in Rotherham. Nothing: not cultural sensitivities, not narrow professional or organisational self-interest should trump the needs of a vulnerable child.
We should also be bullish about tackling concerns of political correctness – the Rotherham report says that “almost all of the abusers were Asian”. We must not shy away from this, and no community should shirk its responsibility to protect children.
The facts are plain – children were let down by those whose job it was to protect them. When frontline workers raised their concerns, the authorities failed to act and young victims’ voices went consistently unheard. Never again must the safety of young people be put second to organisational interests by Rotherham or any other agency.
Barnardo’s has been working in the North East in the area of child sexual exploitation for 16 years, starting in our Middlesbrough project SECOS (Sexually Exploited Children on the Streets) in 1999 and in that time has supported hundreds of victims of child sexual exploitation, some as young as 11 years old.
However, the truth is that child sexual exploitation is not an issue isolated to any one area, culture or community.
We have specialist child sexual exploitation services now in 35 locations across the UK and every service we have opened has quickly become oversubscribed.
We believe we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of children who are being identified for help to avoid, escape or recover from exploitation.
The only way to turn this tide is through ongoing, concerted joined-up working with local authorities, the police, teachers and social workers to raise awareness and put in place support for young victims.
Sexual exploitation is a pernicious crime, with the tools of manipulation, fear and violence used by perpetrators to control their vulnerable young victims. Children are lured in through flattery, promises of friendship and gifts – then the abuse begins: they are raped, assaulted and robbed of their childhood.
Our specialist workers help young people to comprehend the abuse they have suffered. To understand that what has happened to them is not their fault; and support them to recover from their ordeal step by step.
One girl, Emma, said: “Barnardo’s has really helped me. My worker listened to me, never judged me. She made me realise that what had happened wasn’t my fault, I was just a child. She helped me see that I do matter, that people love me and that I didn’t deserve to be treated like this.”
These are the words of just one of the nearly 2,000 children we support every single year. Their words are often heartbreaking but they come from children in every walk of life and from every background.
The big question facing not just Rotherham but the whole of the country now is what happens next?
Because once the media furore has died down and the recriminations have faded; once the commentators have had their say and have all gone home; once the calls for heads to roll have died down; children will still be being exploited and abused.
What is needed is strong and fearless leadership to tackle the issue. For our part, Barnardo’s will be tireless in rooting out this evil and we will carry on providing expert guidance to our partners in the police and social services on this issue.
We will continue to work with professionals to raise awareness and change attitudes. We will continue to reach out to vulnerable children ensuring that as many children as possible get the support we need.
And we will continue to seek reforms to the justice system to better ensure that anyone who chooses to exploit children can be brought to justice and get the punishment they deserve.
We must strain every sinew to ensure child protection is our overriding concern at every turn.
Currently, the eyes of the world are on Rotherham and the UK. They see a country that is failing some of the most vulnerable people in the country. Our next step will be scrutinised and judged.
If we fail to listen when children tell us when they are suffering, fail to act when we notice something of concern, and fail to take responsibility, then there will be another town to add to the list of those where atrocities against children have taken place.
- Javed Khan is chief executive of Barnardo’s