The sexual exploitation of children attracts a great deal of media interest, particularly given the high profile cases where groups of men abused young girls. But we should not forget that throughout history and in every location, girls and boys have been sexually abused. The particular way in which this happens may change, but the motivation of the abusers is the same. They simply seek to gratify themselves, without a care for the child.
Children who suffer serious and sustained abuse may never recover. They may take to drugs or alcohol to take away the mental pain and anguish. Suicide can seem to be the only way out. Forming healthy relationships can be hard, and as adults some are drawn toward abusive relationships and thus complete the cycle.
One of the most devastating impacts is on the ability to trust. Most abuse involves a betrayal of trust: often it is this that makes it hard for the victim to tell anyone about it. Particularly in those areas which receive less attention - intra-familial abuse; peer to peer sexual abuse and young people's harmful sexual behaviour.
The importance of safeguarding
The child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxford show a worrying trend - the grooming of children for sex is becoming more sophisticated. We see children and young people exploited in the most pernicious way, often transported between towns and cities to be subjected to multiple acts of abuse.
A recent assessment by the Child Exploitation and Protection Centre identified that in most areas of the United Kingdom there has not been a proactive approach to tackling sexual exploitation. This needs to change. It is not the responsibility of any single organisation, multi-agency working is essential to tackling grooming.
Local Safeguarding Children Boards are the key body for setting out policy and procedures. With all the relevant agencies having a seat at the table, it is here that the proactive approach needs to start. They have to monitor local incidence of abuse, ensure that professional guidance is understood and the staff are well trained. There are good examples of them ensuring better co-ordination across social care, local police, health professionals, education, youth offending teams and voluntary organisations.
Schools have a vital role in early identification, as outside of home they have most contact with children. They have a statutory duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and are well placed to spot changes in behaviour.
Healthcare professionals are likely to be alerted to signs of sexual exploitation, such as sexually-transmitted infections, physical injuries, changes in appearance and self-harm. Information which indicates a child might be at risk should be shared with children's services to enable a proper investigation to take place.
Parents must know that they can seek help and they will be listened to. I have met parents who knew very early on that something was happening but they couldn't get agencies to take their concerns seriously. Social workers and police may too easily dismiss their concerns, particularly if there is no history of involvement with statutory agencies. This has to change as the longer a young person is subjected to exploitation the greater the impact on them and the more difficult it can be to extract them from the situation.
Police forces and the Crown Prosecution Service should not take an inappropriately cautious approach to accusations of exploitation just because convictions are difficult to achieve. To do so risks fuelling offenders' sense of impunity, leading to possible escalation of victim numbers.
The current situation
We know that a number of areas are still a long way from having effective policies and procedures in place. Last year's report from the Office of the Children's Commissioner advised that only 6% of Local Safeguarding Children Boards met the requirements in full of supplementary statutory guidance issued in 2009. Substantial gaps remain in the availability of specialist provision for victims of sexual exploitation.
The Office of the Children's Commissioner's report uncovered a significant difference between children and young people's views of their needs and what would help them, and professionals understanding.
In too many areas professionals still work in their own silos. Almost one third of Local Safeguarding Children Boards have no plans to appoint a child sexual exploitation coordinator. Nearly half of all child sexual exploitation sub groups have no specific representative from sexual health services.
Information sharing also remains an issue, with some agencies not sharing with police or children's services. Some agencies do engage in collaborative or partnership work, but still do not communicate effectively.
In the criminal justice system there are shockingly low conviction rates, sometimes because victims are treated as collaborators. In addition insufficient attention is given to the needs of young people in giving evidence. I find it staggering that the provisions allowing for video recorded cross-examination or re-examination in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 are still not in force. There can be no argument for continuing to subject highly vulnerable victims to cross examination in court given the highly publicised risks this carries.
The appointment of the Children's Minister as the government lead for child sexual exploitation gives greater prominence to the issue, highlighting it as a national responsibility in England. Likewise, the publication of the National Action Plan on Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation has set out in broad terms how the responsibility is to be shared across central government and by local authorities, police forces and other agencies.
We have seen improvements at the local level as most Local Safeguarding Children Boards now commit resources to tackle child sexual exploitation. Activities such as running awareness-raising programmes and appointing a child sexual exploitation coordinator is now been completed in 63% of instances. This is promising.
The Crown Prosecution Service has introduced specialist coordinators for child sexual assault cases who have produced new guidelines on prosecuting cases. This includes a list of stereotypical behaviour previously thought to undermine the credibility of young people in order to dispel myths when bringing a prosecution. This is coupled with a joint protocol on information sharing between local government and the family courts.
I hope that such measures will avoid a repeat of the events in the Rochdale case where in 2009 the Crown Prosecution Service originally declined to prosecute because they did not find the witness 'reliable'.
We require a much more comprehensive approach in teaching our children and young people about relationships, including sexual relationships. Of course many learn from their parents about what is a good relationship, but this is not the experience for every child. Even children from very supportive homes can put themselves in risky situations during their rebellious adolescent years.
A comprehensive approach is also required for sex and relationship education. This has long been an area of difficulty for politicians who raise this, with the inevitable appearance of stories in the newspapers about children being told or shown things that parents felt were inappropriate.
The statutory guidance on sex and relationship education dates back to the year 2000. Although it is in my view a good framework, it could clearly benefit from updating to take account of the increased knowledge about the incidence of sexual exploitation.
The legal situation in schools is muddled with no requirement for academies to provide sex and relationship education. Ofsted recently found that Personal Social Health and Economic education (usually shortened to PHSE) is not good enough in a "substantial proportion of schools" and that this leaves young people vulnerable.
In a report last year, the Home Affairs Select Committee recommended that all local authorities ensure there is sufficient funding for prevention within the budget of any team tasked with tackling sexual exploitation. Its aims are laudable, but difficult to achieve when most local authorities are making cuts.
However not all inaction can or should be put down to finance. At a meeting of the Child Protection All-Party Parliamentary Group one MP described how her police force had told her that they didn't go looking for child sexual exploitation, but would act if it was brought to their attention. Fortunately not all take this view.
Two years ago a joint unit was set up in Rotherham between the police and social services to take forward the lessons learnt from cases of sexual exploitation that had occurred in the area. They take a proactive approach, for example with instances of young people hanging around premises such as local shops. These are investigated as these can be the early signs of attempts to lure girls into relationships that become exploitative. By becoming involved early, and assessing the situation together, the police and social services have been able to prevent the situation getting worse.
The Deputy Children's Commissioner, Sue Berelowitz, describes the harrowing reality for many children - "each year thousands are raped or abused by people seeking to humiliate, violate and control them. The impact on their lives is devastating. These children have been abducted, trafficked, beaten and threatened after being drawn into a web of sexual violence sometimes by promises of love and sometime simply because they know there is no alternative."
However this dreadful truth should not blind us to the fact that most children are loved, treasured and protected by the adults around them. But we should not be complacent. We need action plans for all areas of child sexual abuse to prevent exploitation, and ensure that those who have experienced sexual abuse get the support they need. Our society needs to continually improve its protection of children.
Meg Munn MP
Chair of the Child Protection All-Party Parliamentary Group