"If only someone had listened..." is the final report of the Office of the Children's Commissioner's two-year national inquiry into child sexual exploitation by gangs and groups, and presents a compelling case for a "sea change" in the culture of children's services so victims' needs are prioritised.
The Inquiry identified a number of significant failings in the current response to tackle and address child sexual exploitation, including:
•Children at high risk of CSE, or already victims, are often simply ignored or discounted.
•A lack of leadership amongst some of the most senior decision makers at local level.
•Too many who should be protecting children are in denial about the realities of CSE.
•Too many areas are still working in isolation to tackle CSE.
•A delayed response to CSE is hampering practice development and improvement to tackle CSE.
•Results are not monitored, preventing recognition of and investment in actions that work.
Importantly, the report highlights not only the persistent failings that result in children still falling through the net that is supposed to protect them, but also existing pockets of best practice that have the potential to support a nationwide approach to keeping children safe and supporting them through to recovery.
Also welcome is the report's recognition of Reach, Railway Children's own model for preventative work, which specialises in one-to-one support to reduce risks to children from sexual exploitation. Reach demonstrates the pivotal role of close collaboration between police, children's services, schools and the voluntary sector, as well as showing how good practice on a national level could help thousands of children sexually exploited each year.
However, there is still a very long way to go. Despite increased awareness of child sexual exploitation, I find it disturbing that, according to the report, just 6% of Local Safeguarding Children Boards fully comply with Government guidance on sexual exploitation.
With children's services already facing austerity, rising demand and poor commissioning practice, it will be a huge challenge to roll out nationwide the report's objective of a more child-centred framework. Radical systemic and cultural reform will be needed, backed by full government support.
Recent court cases demonstrate the extent to which many cases still go unreported by victims and unrecorded by authorities, and a postcode lottery determines how quickly, if at all, protection agencies will reach a child at risk of sexual exploitation. Between 2008 and 2011, as few as one in five police forces were able to say how many children went missing in their area, in spite of running away or going missing being a key, early indicator of child sexual exploitation.
Early intervention and prevention are the best cure. But the only way to administer this cure via a national framework is for all agencies concerned to work together, share information and put children and teenagers at the centre of all safeguarding decisions. This is the only way to ensure they are treated as children who cannot consent to their own abuse but are in need of protection.