Sexual exploitation: exploring the ongoing failure to protect victims

Following yesterday’s conviction of a gang of men in Oxford who subjected vulnerable girls to years of extreme sexual violence, LimeCulture explore why vulnerable young people continue to be failed so badly by the authorities that are supposed to protect them and whether there is effective support in place to help them rebuild their lives.

Yesterday’s case was Oxford. But we’ve also had similar cases involving the sexual exploitation of vulnerable young girls in Telford,  Rochdale, Rotherham, Oldham and Derby. How many more cases are there? LimeCulture suspects that there are many many more in other towns and cities across the country.

There hardly seems to be single a day where a news story involving the sexual exploitation of children and young people is not broadcasted. Some of the abuse is historic, having taken place many decades ago, while in other cases the exploitation has occurred very recently. Whatever the timescale of the abuse, the children have always been failed to be protected. Why is that?

People don’t like to talk about sexual violence. They certainly don’t like to talk about sexual violence involving children. It is uncomfortable and easier to deal with if left unspoken. However, LimeCulture believes this is part of the problem. The reluctance of people to talk about sexual violence means that we are less able to identify the victims, which leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. The sexual abuse of vulnerable children is blight on our society, a society which has allowed too many of the abusers to get away with it and in some cases, continue to abuse for years.

Following the Oxford case, we will all want to find someone to blame for the abuse that these young, vulnerable girls were forced to experience for years at the hands of multiple men. We will say ‘if only the Police had done more’, or ‘if only Social Services had paid attention to what was going on’ and that will make us feel better. We will lay the blame at the door of a few agencies that will no doubt accept that they could have done more. But what about everyone else? What did nobody else step in to protect these girls? Perhaps it was also the teachers who ignored suspicions, perhaps the doctor didn’t ask the right question or perhaps the very people charged with caring and protecting the children did want to rock the boat. These questions could go on and on, as could the list of people who could have played a role in putting a stop to the abuse. LimeCulture believes that children are failed because it is easier to do nothing, not to get involved, not to rock the boat and not to speak about sexual violence involving children.

So why do people stay silent when it comes to sexual violence involving children?  Is sexual violence so well hidden that nobody can see when it occurs, even when it is your job to protect vulnerable people?

LimeCulture believes there is a combination of 4 main factors that leave children unprotected and exposed to abuse. These factors are:

  1. Passive behaviour of professionals
  2. Failure to agencies and professionals to work together
  3. Lack of knowledge and skill to identify sexual violence
  4. Lack of appropriate support services for victims.

The first factor that we have identified that leaves children and young people unprotected is down to the passive behaviour of professionals. As explained above it’s easier not to say anything and it’s easier to do nothing. LimeCulture believes the misguided fear of opening a can of worms is enough to silence most professionals.

Secondly, the ability of agencies and professionals to work together and share information (or suspicions or intelligence) that help join the dots of what is really going on compounds this lack of protection for victims. So often we hear of professionals that confess they had suspicions but they failed to discuss them with other professionals. Perhaps if they did, then their suspicions could be corroborated. Unfortunately, the difficulty of information sharing, data collection and protection between agencies means that common sense (and the skills required for a conversation) is often left at the door.

The third factor that LimeCulture believes leaves children exposed to sexual violence is the failure to adequately train and educate professionals in how to identify sexual violence. There are so many cases of victims coming to the attention of professionals on numerous occasions, yet the route cause is never explored. Take for example, the young girl who is a frequent visitor to the sexual health clinic, and suffers from poor mental health and yet nobody has ever asked her about sexual violence. There are so many indicators and tell-tale signs of sexual violence, but professionals still seem unable to see the connections and say that they lack the knowledge and skills to identify victims appropriately. Unfortunately, we are still a long way away from introducing routine enquiry into sexual violence in health settings, such as mental health or sexual health services, although this could very well be one of the advances that is needed in order to improve the identification of victims.

Finally, the lack of appropriate support services for victims is a huge factor when it comes to explaining why professionals fail to protect victims. The fear of failing to ‘appropriately respond’ can lead to professionals staying silent. For example, ‘if I ask whether they are being sexually abused, and they say yes, what do I do then?’.

LimeCulture believes that professionals are also failing to support victims of sexual exploitation, because of the lack of support available- particularly in relation to their mental health. Generally, there is an over-reliance on the voluntary and community sector to provide support services for victims of sexual violence (many of which are not properly commissioned, funded or monitored). However, the statutory sector are batting back referrals due to resource pressures. Many victims do not meet the high thresholds for statutory mental health services, meaning statutory support is only available for people who have reached crisis point or had to be detained under the Mental Health Act.

Whilst support from the voluntary and community sector is generally easier to access than statutory agency mental health support, the provision of sexual violence support services in the voluntary and community sector is still patchy at best. LimeCulture believes that there are still whole areas of the country where no specialist support is available for children and young people who have been sexually abused.

So, we find a catch 22 situation for many professionals who suspect somebody is a victim of sexual abuse. If they make that uncomfortable decision to act on their suspicions of sexual violence, they could find themselves in the situation where there is no support available for the victim. Ask yourself what is worse, failure to identify (sexual violence) or failure to respond (once they have been identified)?

LimeCulture is committed to improving the confidence and competence of frontline professionals working with victims of sexual violence. We would like to see that every victim of sexual violence in every part of the country can access high-quality support services when they need them.  LimeCulture believes that by ensuring efficient and effective support services for victims are in place (with careful planning, management and monitoring), professionals are less likely to adopt passive behaviours and are more likely to identify and respond to victims of sexual violence who each deserve to be protected.

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