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Why Do We Only Take Notice of Our Teenagers When Rapists Are Convicted?

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As a society, we seem to ignore our young people, unless they're either rioting, roistering through town centres, or being raped.

The case of the Rochdale child sex abuse ring, where nine men were found guilty of 21 counts of sexual abuse over a two-year period, raises a number of disturbing questions, not least how has this happened and who is to blame.

Greater Manchester Police Assistant Chief Constable Steve Heywood, Rochdale council leader Colin Lambert and the North West's chief prosecutor, Nazir Afzal, have all admitted that there were failings in the way each of their respective authorities handled the case.

Indeed, the case flew largely under the radar until Nazir Afzal decided to pursue it upon his appointment to chief crown prosecutor.

This, despite the fact that, one young girl, just 15 when the abuse began, told the police what was happening to her in August 2008, was dismissed by the CPS as not "credible".

Leaving aside the cheap political capital being made out of this case by right wing conspiracy theorists, the main issue in this case, and indeed in many similar cases, is not race, but a lack of communication between the agencies that could rightly be expected to look after vulnerable young people.

The Manchester Evening News cites a police source says that Rochdale's Crisis Intervention Team set up to reduce teenage pregnancies, "came across 'innumerable' vulnerable girls but did not always communicate with police and social services".

Nazir Afzal told the Manchester Evening News of "multiple failures", from those supposed to be caring for these children who "enable them to be out at 11.30pm on a school day", to a failure of the education system, to "neighbours and community members who have seen them at risk and perhaps turned a blind eye", and to "the prosecution and police service which have delayed justice".

This is a picture that Sue Kent, professional officer for the British Association of Social Workers, recognises all too well.

Sue is a children's social worker and runs a group to share best practice in protecting young people from sexual exploitation.

She also recently contributed to a two-year study, by researchers Professor Sue Jago and Jenny Pearce at the University of Bedfordshire, based on responses from 100 Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs), the key statutory mechanism for agreeing how the relevant organisations in each local area will co-operate to safeguard and promote the welfare of children across the country.

The study found that only just over a third of respondents had a sub-group in place to examine the issue of child exploitation, and a specialist project providing services for young people.

Their report makes 11 recommendations, including a call to carry out a review of the court processes for child sexual exploitation, training on child sexual exploitation for LSCB chairs and directors of children's services, plus additional guidance for all child care professionals.

There are three areas that cause particular concern:

• Only a quarter of LSCBs in England are implementing the 2009 government guidance on safeguarding children and young people from sexual exploitation
• Young people, their families and carers receive awareness raising in less than half
of the country
• The prosecution of abusers is rare and, where criminal proceedings take place,
young people's experience of court can be intolerable

While not all victims in the Rochdale case were known to social services, many of them were, and the study concludes that a "disproportionate number of sexually exploited young people are looked after by the local authority, and a disproportionate number are placed in residential care, increasing vulnerability to sexual exploitation".

The report also identifies that "the high number, 54% of young people from the 'snap shot' polled, accommodated in residential care is worrying, as qualitative evidence and previous research shows that, unless (they are) specifically trained and managed to prevent child sexual exploitation, placement in residential units can increase a young person's vulnerability to abuse. Comparisons with national statistics of looked after young people suggest that sexually exploited young people may be 4½ times more likely to be accommodated in residential care".

Sue Kent points out that cuts in public services, coupled with a post Baby P fixation on the needs of babies and young children, are leading to even less services for young people.

She says: "Vulnerable young people are falling through the gaps in service provision, and often end up in chaotic 'private fostering' situations, where they are sleeping on people's sofas and not being properly supervised or cared for."

In the Rochdale case, the prosecution's main witness ran away from her home into another chaotic situation; where she encountered the gang who went on to abuse her. She told the jury: "Social services should have removed me."

Sue Kent agrees that there is not enough co-operation between social services, health, schools and the police when referrals are made about young people. Very often, connections are not made that should be being made, and could save young people from exploitation.

The Rochdale case could have been solved as early as August 2008, when police were called to arrest a 15-year-old girl for smashing up the counter of the Balti House takeaway in Heywood.

Sue Kent says: "A social worker may get a referral that a young person is hanging around with a group of men, but lack of resources means that these referrals are not properly responded to. Cries for help for young people are falling on deaf ears, as a result. The other big issue is addressing how these young victims are treated by the criminal justice system, which may put them off making complaints."

It is easy to turn away from the revolting reality of these types of cases, but the lack of foster carers in this country and the sheer lack of money in the system, means that children vanish into a terrifying underworld of exploitation, and nothing is done about it.

The local authority would claim that changes have now been made within Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council's children's services. Social workers are now based at Rochdale police station, and a dedicated group meets every fortnight to identify children who may be at risk.

According to the Manchester Evening News, at about the time the trial started, Rochdale council also began a campaign in schools to teach them of the dangers.

This is all welcome, and needs to be replicated UK-wide. We all need to lose our innocence about the reality of what happens to young people who are exploited for sex by adults, so that we can protect them from these predators.