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The Rotherham Inquiry – An Alternative View

October 5, 2014

It is with a heavy heart that I write about the latest in a long line of child abuse stories that are, I believe, best understood as incidences of moral panic. I could not write this until now. I wanted to reflect on the issues, and to let the dust to settle on all the horrific stories that have been told and retold in the media. I was also fully aware that some people would not understand why I felt the need to write about the inquiry from this perspective. So let me get some things straight from the outset. Nothing I write here suggests that there is not something here that we should not be concerned about. Nor is it to dismiss the hurt and pain of those children and young people who were caught up in abuse between 1997 and 2013. Nor is it to suggest that those whose job it was to protect these children could not, and should not, have done better. Instead, it is to argue that the approach taken to the Rotherham Inquiry missed some of the most perplexing issues at the heart of this case, and in doing so, may makes things worse, not better, for children and young people and those delivering services in the future. Let me explain…

The Rotherham Inquiry report (Jay, 2014) into the child sexual exploitation of children and young people asserts that ‘approximately 1400 children’ were sexually exploited between 1997 and 2013, and that the abuse ‘continues to this day’. This figure is said to be ‘a conservative estimate’ – the real figure could be far higher (p1). In just over one-third of the cases, children and young people were said to be already known to services because of child protection and neglect. A number of key allegations are made:
• That the scale and seriousness of the problem was underplayed by senior managers.
• That the police gave no priority to child sexual abuse, and failed to act on the abuse of children as a crime.
• That children’s social care service was understaffed and overstretched, struggling to cope with demand.
• That elected members and senior officers knew about the abuse but did nothing.
• That ‘by far the majority of perpetrators were described as Asian by victims’ (p2), yet this was not addressed with the Pakistani-heritage community.
• That a Safeguarding Children inter-agency board lacked scrutiny and oversight of practice.

Although the report is 153 pages long, it is section 5, the accounts of abuse and its aftermath that has had greatest media attention to date. It is here that we read the appalling accounts of abuse, and it is here that we also get some insight into what was done (and not done) to try to help the children involved. Much of the rest of the report is taken up with an investigation of the behaviour and working of the agencies – the police, social services and voluntary agencies, as well as the elected members and senior officers of the council. The report makes 15 recommendations in its conclusions, focused on better risk assessment, better documentation and better inter-agency working, as well as better therapeutic services to those children who were abused. It is also asserted that ‘the issue of race should be tackled as an absolute priority if it is a significant factor in the criminal activity of organised child sexual abuse in the Borough’ (p118).

So why do I think this Inquiry report fails to address some of the most difficult issues and may therefore make things worse? I will answer this question by asking another question – what was really going on here?

Rotherham, 1997-2013

As the report states, in 1997, Rotherham council, in response to widespread concern, initiated a new youth-work project, Risky Business, to work with young people aged between 11 and 25 years, providing sexual health advice, and help in relation to alcohol and drugs, self-harm, eating disorders, parenting and budgeting (p3). By the late 1990s, it was identifying vulnerable girls on the streets, as well as taking referrals from other agencies. Risky Business, although a council-run service, provided voluntary support to young people; where serious concerns emerged that ‘might require statutory intervention’ (p4), young people were referred on to children’s social care. Between 2001 and 2002, Risky Business participated in a Home Office research pilot whose aim was to find out the most effective approaches to street prostitution. In 2003, the Area Child Protection Committee received reports about both runaway children and the work of Risky Business and set up a multi-agency Sexual Exploitation Forum to consider individual cases of children who were being sexually exploited or at risk of exploitation. Between 2007 and 2013, the police undertook a series of six operations ‘jointly coordinated and designed to investigate cases of suspected child sexual exploitation’ (p4), although only one (Operation Central), resulted in successful prosecution and conviction; five men were convicted in 2010.

This brief summary tells us a number of things, not all of which have been highlighted in the media attention that this report has received …

Firstly, it is clear that the council was sufficiently concerned about young people at risk in the 1990s to fund a project specifically designed to help this group. And many of those whose stories are told in Section 5 did get help and support from this agency. The accounts of the children and young people in the report are accounts of children who were, on the whole, out of control – this is not to blame them, nor is it to excuse those who took advantage of their vulnerability – but instead it is to seek to understand better the context in which their abuse happened. An example from the report reinforces this point. A parent whose daughter was abused states: “My child (age 13) may appear to be a mature child, yet some of the actions and the risks to which she constantly puts herself are those of a very immature and naïve person. She constantly stays out all night getting drunk, mixing with older mature adults, and refuses to be bound by any rules.” (p36)

There is a totally understandable sense of frustration and despair in this quotation – what could this parent do? At the end of her tether, she agreed to her child being placed in a residential unit – but what can and should residential social workers do to police the behaviour of young people? I know from my own experience as a social worker (and indeed, as a parent) that it is extraordinarily difficult to help young people who are ‘out of control’; who are on a ‘self-destruct’ mission; and who insist that they are old enough to make their own choices, dangerous as we think they might be. We cannot lock children up for their own safety, even when we want to, because if we do, they will always find ways of getting round this. This point is picked up in an article on the Rotherham inquiry in the October edition of Professional Social Work magazine (Naqvi, 2014). Here a residential social worker is quoted as saying: “There are young people who place themselves in danger but they may not see it this way. It’s difficult to stop them putting themselves in these difficult situations.” (p15) This reminds us that supporting young people is not straightforward; as social workers, we cannot promise to protect all children and young people from harm, although we will, of course, wish to do so wherever possible.

The report also serves as a record of changing attitudes towards children and young people and sex. What we call ‘child sexual exploitation’ today used to be referred to as ‘child prostitution’ or ‘youth prostitution’ (see, for example, Barrett and Mullenger, 2002)’; there is a great deal of criticism in the report of the older terminology because of what it seems to convey, just as there is criticism of police and social workers’ seeming acceptance of children and young people’s participation in sexual behaviour. However, again, this needs to be placed in a wider context. There has, in reality, been concern about young people’s involvement in sex, with adults and with each other, since (at the very least) the 19th Century, when the first inquiry into ‘juvenile prostitution’ was conducted in London, and led to the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885 and the setting up of National Vigilance Association branches across the UK (and later, the world). I have written about this in other places (see the references at the end to find out more). Whatever we call it, this concern is not a new phenomenon, and it has as much to do with the creation of childhood (laying down lines about what is acceptable behaviour for children and for adults) as anything else. So the 19th and 20th centuries witnessed a rise in the age of sexual consent from 12 to 13 and then 16 years, as well as the passing of legislation to prohibit incest. Today, we are more concerned about children’s access to sex than ever before (seen in campaigns against pornography and especially the internet).

Finally, the report demonstrates how difficult it is to investigate and prosecute sexual behaviour through the criminal justice system; if this is difficult with adults, it is likely to be even more difficult when those involved are children and young people. Although the law sets down rules about the age of sexual consent, beyond this, issues of consent are complex – social relations are all about reciprocity (we do things in order to get other things) and about relationship (we do things because we like someone, or because we want them to like us). With this in mind, when does ‘befriending’ a young person become ‘grooming’? Why should we be surprised when a young person says of a perpetrator, “I know he really loves me” (p37)? Of course, this is not to forget the reality that the choices we make can be constrained by the situation we find ourselves in. The children and young people in the Rotherham Inquiry report had little in the way of cultural capital and few resources to draw on. But does this mean that they had no agency? What are the potentially negative implications of suggesting that this might be so, for the young people themselves?

So how are we to understand the Rotherham episode?

We have used moral panic theory as a way of unpacking and understanding some of the deeper issues at the heart of a number of contemporary social concerns. Drawing on Stan Cohen’s characterisation of moral panics, Folk Devils and Moral Panics:

‘A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests’ (1972: 1):
o Here it is the sexual exploitation of children and young people that is the threat; the ‘folk devils’ are the male ‘perpetrators’, often described as ‘Asian’ men.

‘Its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media’ (
o The language used in parts of the inquiry report is highly emotive; the abuse is ‘appalling’. It was this that was picked up in all the media reporting of the inquiry’s findings, not the much more nuanced description of what the children and young people actually said, or even the statement that ‘there was evidence of a good level of engagement with individual children’ (p45).

‘The moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people’; ‘socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions’ (
o The Rotherham inquiry findings have been repeated with almost no independent examination or scrutiny: for example, the claim that more than 1400 children were sexually exploited between 1997 and 2013 has been accepted as a shocking fact by all commentators in the media and parliament.

‘Ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to’ (
o The inquiry’s recommendations reinforce the notion that social work with children and young people across the UK should focus on high-tariff, risk cases; there is little opportunity for preventive social work with children and families.

‘The condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible… Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten…; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way society conceives itself’ (
o This ‘condition’ is unlikely to disappear, given that it is part of a wider concern that has been around at least since the mid 19th century; it might, in that regard, be seen more as a feature of moral regulation than moral panic.

Finally, why might the inquiry report makes things worse?

I have a number of concerns about the inquiry report in moving forward.

Firstly, I am concerned about the methodology the inquiry used and the lack of attention to this. The report accessed 66 cases (22 current and 44 historic). The 1400 figure emerges from ‘lists’ compiled by agencies, and these included ‘summary descriptions’ of children and young people supported by Risky Business, in individual and group sessions. It seems at least reasonable to ask – what ‘double counting’ may have taken place? And what about young people who were supported by the agency – known to be at risk, but not actually abused? The report also states that it took a ‘randomised sample’ of 19 current and 19 historic cases – how was this done? Without this information, it is difficult to judge the findings independently. Finally, it is stated that a ‘small number of young people’ were interviewed, but we don’t know – how many? Were these current or historic cases? Again, without this information, it is difficult to make an independent assessment of the findings in relation to the cases.

Secondly, I am concerned about the negative implications for men in general and Asian men in particular that arise from this report, as well as the repeated suggestions in the report that officials were afraid to act because of fears of being accused as ‘racist’. This report comes at a time of considerable sensitivities regarding ‘race’ and ethnicity and increasing anti-Moslem sentiment in the UK. There is, moreover, no evidence that ethnicity is actually a feature in child sexual abuse figures at a national level, as demonstrated in recent research by Bebbington et al. (2011). This would suggest that greater care should have been taken not to stigmatise and blame in the report.

Finally, I am concerned about the impact this report will have on child care services across the UK. As institutions are repeatedly blamed for failing individuals (Parton, 2014), and as more and more social work attention is focused on a small high risk group, so the larger issues of child neglect and child welfare become lost. I have considerable sympathy for the social work manager who is criticised in the report for saying that child sexual exploitation was only a small proportion of the total contacts and referrals to children’s social care – just over 2% – and that neglect was a “much more pressing issue” for him (p30). This is the message that has come out of other influential reports and publications recently, including the Munro review (2011) and Featherstone et al (2014), as well as some of our own writing (Clapton et al., 2013 a and b). This is not to minimise child sexual exploitation; instead, it is to place it in context. And to remember that supporting vulnerable children and young people requires relationship-building and care, not simply policing and control. This is never going to be easy.

Viviene E. Cree

5th October 2014

Barrett, D. and Mullenger, N. (eds) (2000) Youth Prostitution ion the New Europe, Lyne Regis: Russell House Publishing.
Bebbington, P.E., Jonas, S., Brugha, T., Meltzer, H., Jenkins, R., Cooper, C., King, M., McManus, S. (2011) Child sexual abuse reported by an English national sample, characteristics and demography, Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology 46: 255-262.
Clapton, G., Cree, V.E. and Smith, M. (2013a) ‘Moral panics and social work: Towards a sceptical view of UK child protection’, Critical Social Policy, 33: 197 -217, originally published online 6 September 2012, doi: 0.1177/0261018312457860.
Clapton, G., Cree, V.E. and Smith, M. (2013b) ‘Moral Panics, Claims-Making and Child Protection in the UK’, British Journal of Social Work, 43 (4): 803-812, first published online 14 May 2013, doi:10.1093/bjsw/bct061.
Cohen, S. (1972) Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Oxford: Martin Robertson.
Cree, V.E., Clapton, G. and Smith, M. (2014) ‘The Presentation of Child Trafficking in the UK: An Old and New Moral Panic?’, British Journal of Social Work, 44 (2): 418-433. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcs120 First published online: August 16, 2012
Cree, V.E. (2008) ‘Confronting Sex-Trafficking: lessons from history’, International Social Work, 51 (6): 763-776.
Featherstone, B., White, S. and Morris, K. (2014) Re-imagining Child Protection. Towards humane social work with families, Bristol: Policy Press.
Jay, A. (2014) Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham, 1997-2013, Rotherham: Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council.
Munro, E. (2011) The Munro Review of Child Protection, Final report – A child-centred system, London: Department for Education.
Naqvi, S. (2014) ‘Living in sexually blurred times’, Professional Social Work, October, Birmingham: BASW.
Parton, N. (2014) The Politics of Child Protection. Contemporary Developments and Future Directions, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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