With all the articles, reports and debates on the UK-wide sexual abuse of children in cities, by celebrities, or in children’s homes, none have properly examined the real underlying reason why for decades the perpetrators of this abuse have largely got away with what they did and why the authorities covered up the crimes. This reason is staring us in the face – it is about class, about poverty and about attitudes to poverty and those who suffer from it. Let’s de-construct this further…
If a well-off, middle class mother arrived at a police station to report that her daughter regularly goes missing and that she believes it is because her daughter is being groomed, possibly by a gang, you can bet that the allegation is treated very seriously and given immediate investigation. But this was not the case in Rotherham, or Rochdale, or Oxford, or in any of the many other cities around the UK that has and still is suffering from this epidemic of child sex abuse. That abuse has seen over 1400 victims in Rotherham alone and in Oxford over 1000 separate ‘disappearance’ cases (i.e. abduction) of children by sex traffickers, who groom these youngsters by providing gifts, then alcohol and drugs. In almost every case these victims – young girls, or boys, of 15 years old, or 14, or 13, or as young as 9 – came from ‘broken homes’ or dysfunctional families and impoverished backgrounds.
According to one expert there could be as many as 11 million victims of sexual abuse in the UK – constituting a “national health epidemic”. This equates to one out of every four children – abused by traffickers or in children’s homes or in their own home.
In the narratives that have come out of the reports so far published (see links at end of this article) one feature that remains constant is the attitude of police to these extremely vulnerable youngsters. Police are reported to have regarded these victims as ‘slags’ and ‘troublemakers’. Imagine if similar derogatory terms were used against victims, say, of burglaries. It wouldn’t happen – at least, not on such a scale. That the police adopt these class-ist attitudes against vulnerable young girls and boys is no surprise in that these attitudes are but an extensive of their long-held view that the working classes are the criminal class. But in harbouring these attitudes, the police are tantamount to being party to the very crimes they are supposed to solve or prevent. The reports also show how the police had little or nil understanding of what consensual sex really means and so did not take complaints by the children or their parents seriously.
For decades police, council staff, NHS staff, social workers and other professionals have turned a blind eye to this abuse of the nation’s young. They did this because it was easier to do so, to avoid trouble, bullying from managers, etc. It would probably begin with a few cases not properly investigated; then, as more cases appeared, the neglect is transformed into a cover-up, to protect past inaction; in doing this, these professionals, wittingly or otherwise, end up protecting the perpetrators of these crimes; and in abdicating their responsibility for safeguarding children these same professionals deserve to lose any respect they had from their peers and from society.
As a society we – everyone of us – have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable. It’s worth reminding ourselves about this very basic aspect of our humanity. But perhaps we too easily forget this responsibility because of how, today, we inhabit an atomised world, one where neighbours hardly talk to each other, where people rarely communicate face-to-face, where celebrities are idolised and – most importantly – where we have gotten used to delegating our responsibilities in general to the state, its institutions and its agencies.
When those state agencies and institutions fail – as they have, so spectacularly, in regard to child abuse – the standard response of Government is to talk about sanctions (e.g. in this case, up to five years gaol for wilful neglect, and possibly the introduction of mandatory reporting mechanisms) and other vote-catching measures. However, such measures may even result in the opposite to what is sought in that if for whatever reason front-line workers or managers cannot effectively deal with and prevent these crimes, then rather than risk prison sentences they will simply switch professions.
So, instead of sanctions, perhaps a more workable and less short-term approach would be one that would require a complete and drastic change in how victims of these horrendous, life-changing crimes are perceived by all these professionals. A reminder: it is the interest of the child – whatever the circumstance, or their background, or their ethnicity – that should always come first.
What we have seen over recent months – and, sadly, there will, inevitably, be more revelations about wide-scale child sex abuse, in more cities and towns – should be seen as a wake-up call, not only for those who are paid to protect vulnerable children, but for all of us.
The bottom line is that responsibility for what happens in our communities does not cease at the door of the police station, or the office of the social worker, or the entrance to the town hall. That responsibility lies with everyone – with teachers, leisure centre staff, hoteliers, taxi-drivers, librarians and anyone who in their daily lives comes into contact with children. In short, we have to reclaim the responsibilities we have assigned and, in doing so, rediscover our place in society as a whole.