Child exploitation in Rotherham has been on an unimaginable scale and the response has been unbearably slow. We must listen to young people and the staff voicing their concerns, writes Kim Holt

The systematic sexual abuse and exploitation of girls in Rotherham is yet another story of neglect by the state towards those who we should have been protecting. 

Kim Holt

‘Child exploitation in Rotherham has been on an unimaginable scale’

The failure of those in positions of authority – with statutory duties to protect children and, importantly, to listen to cries for help – is upsetting beyond anything that has gone before. 

Child exploitation in Rotherham has been on an unimaginable scale.

Ignored or threatened

In the reports so far, failures of the police response stand out as a concern.

The operational response was unbearably slow.

Health and social care professionals were writing reports and attending meetings with senior leaders of the child protection services to raise their concerns about what was happening, but remained ignored, heard and at times threatened. 

In 2003 the Social Services Inspectorate found a situation of extremes. 

There were staffing issues that impacted the provision of core services. This information would have been fed back to the council too.

‘The operational response was unbearably slow’

“Core services were inadequate”, which meant children would have been regularly exposed to risk.  

Alexis Jay’s excellent report highlighted the inadequacy of the local safeguarding board. This is a multiagency board charged with ensuring that strategy is directed towards continual improvement in safeguarding services.

Was the local safeguarding board sufficiently challenging and challenged?

The ability to act

It has been a concern for some time that local safeguarding boards are made up primarily of senior managers from the services that they are charged with ensuring follow best practice and learn from mistakes. 

Will these people really want to open up a can of worms in their own backyards?

‘The response depends upon a willingness to listen to young people and act in a timely way’

There was arrogance amongst senior managers in Rotherham across the agencies that they knew best. Therefore, when concerns were raised with them about individual cases, they were often brushed aside in some instances despite the high level of concern in Rotherham over child sexual exploitation. 

However, at the end of the day many policies and procedures are in place. The response of the agencies charged with protecting children depends upon a willingness to listen to young people and an ability to act in a timely way.

Clearly in crisis

It’s difficult, demanding and emotionally draining work to hear about sexual abuse. Many cases will not reach the level required for a prosecution but they should have been able to reach the thresholds for child protection.

In December 2007 the youth project Risky Business was overwhelmed with referrals for child exploitation.

There was clearly a crisis in Rotherham.

In November 2010 “child S” was murdered.

‘How hopeless is a system which fails to inform the professionals of why things went wrong?’

Three years later the serious case review into the death of “child S” apparently contained significant redactions. This goes against the entire purpose of a serious case review, and is one of the major flaws in the process. 

When the serious case review into the death of Peter Connelly was first completed in 2008,  it was hidden from view.

We now know that the review was seriously flawed. Subsequently, it transpired that the significant Sibert report, which fed into the review, was heavily redacted.

In the case of Kyle Keen the serious case review never reached the hospital team who had been directly involved in the case management.

Despite the review highlighting a “catastrophic failure” within the paediatric department, paediatrician David Drew only discovered this by chance.

How hopeless is a system charged with learning from mistakes that fails to inform the professionals of why things went wrong? 

The biggest fallout

I have been listening to health professionals over the past few years who have contacted me in regards to how they were treated, having raised concerns about child protection systems in their places of work.

Some of these professionals I have interviewed in depth as part of a Masters degree in complex care and child protection. Of the five interviewed, three of them had signed confidentiality clauses.

All had been removed from their posts and indeed only one was still on a permanent contract within the NHS.

‘It’s time we did the right thing for children so we can say honestly we care’

The fallout from raising concerns is now widely recognised as immense, but the biggest fallout is on the individual who suffers emotionally and career wise. Often the fallout impacts upon families too. 

Myself and those with whom I am regularly in contact with support Ed Miliband’s call for an inquiry into child protection.

One that delves into the managerial culture and failure of systems to listen to vulnerable young people, but also staff who are voicing their concerns.

This has gone on long enough. It’s time we really did the right thing for children so we can honestly say that we care. 

Kim Holt is a consultant paediatrician and founder of Patients First, which campaigns for whistleblowers