Lessons of Rotherham

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The Jay Report revealed the extent of child sexual exploitation in the UK. Tony Staunton argues that the scandal also exposes the impact of cuts, as well as contempt towards vulnerable young women.

The Jay Report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham over a 12-year period is horrific reading. There were more than 1,400 known cases of abuse, mostly of isolated working class girls, most of whom remained unheard by the services supposedly there to protect them. Those in charge of the services undermined investigations and stopped preventive measures being put in place.

Attitudes to the young people by those in authority were prejudicial and dismissive, labelling particularly vulnerable working class children as beyond help, as choosing to prostitute themselves or making “lifestyle choices” in offering themselves to be gang-raped.

Child sexual exploitation is abhorrent, and the fight for children’s rights should be part of the struggle against all oppression and for social justice. We study the human condition and impact of material conditions and dominant ideas in society in order to change the world for the better. We have to understand how and why abuse happens and fight for remedies.

Any experience of abuse produces an emotional condition of confusion and disorientation. In particular, the intimacy of sexual abuse results in a range of long-lasting effects best understood as post-traumatic stress disorders, including low self-esteem and self-hatred, flashbacks and anxiety attacks, depression and destructive compulsive behaviours that can plague the victim throughout their lifetime.

Recent research by the NSPCC suggests at least one in 20 children across Britain — that’s over half a million — experience contact sexual abuse.

Their 2011 study Child Abuse and Neglect in the UK Today reveals that 16.5 percent of 11 to 17 year olds reported sexual abuse by an adult or a peer. Attitudes condoning coercion inside sexual relations are becoming widespread, with a corresponding rise in domestic abuse within teenage first-couple relationships.

Most importantly, the overwhelming majority of child sexual abuse is committed within the family, not by “strangers”. While there is overlap between intra- and extra-familial sexual abuse, access to vulnerable children is easier behind closed doors. The private family unit under capitalism is based upon property relations – class relations of ownership and inheritance.

Property

There is a direct link between the way capitalism promotes the accumulation of private wealth and personal power, and the way children are seen as the conduits for the continuation of family assets. So children are owned by their parents and raised in their image.

Most of us have no real assets to speak of, but are nevertheless socialised to subscribe to the capitalist form of the family and raise our children as if they are our property, and to develop the value and the status of the family name.

The natural bonds of love and kinship are distorted by requirements for compliance with specific and private “family values”. Such privacy is often a breeding ground for secrecy, competition, enmity and power games.

The primary economic value of the family is in cheap, if not free, rearing and domestic maintenance of the next generation of workers. This requires the systematic exploitation of women as the unpaid child bearers and child raisers.

For women’s oppression to be tolerated, we are taught to accept nonsense differences between the genders that identify the woman as subservient to the man, whose right it is to assert power and control over the household.

Today around a quarter of women face an average period of six years in a relationship where they experience domestic abuse. This domestic structure breeds and maintains unequal relationships between couples, adults and children, older and younger siblings.

But we should not speak about the distortion of relationships under capitalism as if it is an academic analysis. Any response or quest for solutions to the oppression of women or children cannot wait until after the revolution.

Unfortunately, the Marxist analysis of the family has been used by some to suggest that the notion of childhood is also a capitalist construct to be rejected. In this model, children’s rights mean they should play a full part in society, and be able to take part in all adult activities alongside adults.

The inherent dangers in this approach should be clear to all, giving the green light to children engaging with adult activities they cannot truly understand or consent to.
In a world that objectifies and sells sexual activity, and distorts or denies the value of intimacy, these pressures are enormous.

There has been a seismic increase in the commercialisation of sexuality in recent years, with Ofcom identifying a quarter of all ten year olds admitting to having accessed hardcore porn online. Online bullying, grooming and coercion linked to “sexting” and the scoring of sexual attractiveness are widespread.

Teenagers speak of confusion about issues of consent and about sexual performance, linking sexual intercourse with conquest. Girls as young as four exhibit anxiety about body image. Little wonder that cases of self-harm by teenagers are rising dramatically.

One striking aspect of the Jay Report is the level of professional carelessness. The attitudes and values of some police and social workers were discriminatory, although they considered themselves “liberated”.

Some looked at the behaviours of the 12 or 14 year old victims and condemned them as “prostitutes” or “beyond control”, or viewed their repeated running away and having sex with groups of older men as a “lifestyle choice”.

The question of “informed consent” was absent from any assessment of the children and young people, as was any understanding of interpersonal power and control that may represent coercion. The young people concerned were judged on the basis of their actions, rather than professionals asking why they were behaving like this.

There were also many examples of workers trying hard to help and support the child victims, but hampered by lack of resources, managerial rationing of time, and even destruction of evidence in order to make an agency’s performance data look better.

Cuts

Child protection social workers and health staff are today at a point of complete meltdown, facing job losses, funding cuts and fragmentation of services. Dealing with the impact on families of debt, benefit cuts and rotten housing conditions results in impossibly high caseloads concerning very complex family problems.

Local government funding has been hardest hit, with an average of 36 percent reductions to spending on vital welfare services, half of which have yet to take place. According to the Jay Report, Rotherham will have lost 33 percent of spending power since 2011.

Little wonder there is no time to take part in training to keep up to date with the latest child development knowledge, or to have space to reflect on the experience of a particular child and ask why she or he is behaving in a certain way.

The majority of the 1,400 children identified in the Rotherham scandal were living on the edge of society. Many were in care, or from chaotic family backgrounds. Families living in poverty are not necessarily hostile places for children, and most of us raise our children with love and dedication despite not being able to afford to give them the best start in life.

Nevertheless, according to the Child Poverty Action Group, 3.5 million children in Britain today live in poverty. Poverty is not simply about money, but affects emotional resources too. Most of the families in the bottom fifth of the population by income cannot afford even one week’s holiday a year.

Deprivation

Parental stress and anxiety impact upon the child’s self-esteem. Poor diet weakens concentration and the ability to learn. Leaving school with fewer qualifications translates into lower earnings. With 5 million working adults officially low paid, the cycle of deprivation continues from generation to generation.

For many, the experience of poverty produces hopelessness, forcing narrow horizons where it is too painful to look back into memories or forward into hope for the future. No wonder that many end up “living in the now”, seeking some escape through drugs and alcohol and sex that might just be construed as “love”.

So the predatory adult, looking to exploit the vulnerable, offers gifts, highs, fun, laughter and love at first, and binds the young person into a trap that cannot be easily escaped.
The Rotherham men, as with child sexual abusers across the country, created a dependency that the children were blamed for acceding to.

Race card

The media were quick to play the race card in Rotherham, falsely labelling Asian men and by association all Muslims as predatory child sex offenders. But the Jay Report observes that there were many more men than those convicted, of all nationalities and creeds, seeking out vulnerable children, both girls and boys, to control and exploit.

Over 80 percent of male sex offenders in prison are white, under 10 percent black and less than 6 percent are Asian. And it was not just white but Asian children who were abused and who faced different barriers to seeking help. Sexual abuse cannot be placed at the door of any one ethnic or cultural group — it happens in every community.

To understand child exploitation is to understand the dehumanising effect of living on the edge of society with a deep sense of alienation and powerlessness. This in no way condones the abuse, but if we are to stop it, we have to understand its roots.

Fighting for children’s rights does not mean protecting children from society, enclosing them in some mythical state of childhood “innocence” which serves only to leave them prey to the unchallengeable power of adults. Nor does it mean children are just little adults who do not need protection.

Individualism

Children should be assured of engagement with society and a voice that is appropriate to their age. But the right to a voice, to be listened to, to be considered, is not the same as “the right to do whatever I want”.

The old adage, “it takes a village to raise a child”, is an antidote to the painful reading of the Jay Report. Modern neoliberal capitalism asserts an ideology of individualism, the privatisation and commercialisation of everything including the family, intimate relationships and sex.

Collective ideas of community, mutual care and understanding are anathema to this drive towards the survival of the richest. It is no surprise that exploitation, including sexual exploitation of children, is on the increase.

Fighting for children’s rights means fighting against the cuts and for state funded, universally accessible therapeutic services.

We desperately need well-funded intervention and care services. It also means challenging the privatised family that hides the secrets, and socialising child care.

People can and do change. We must offer empathy in relating to others, to replace the alienated self-affirmation gained through domination and control with a sense of social engagement, mutual acceptance, intimacy and shared community.

The exertion of personal power over others is not the alternative to powerlessness — only collective power and control can rid the world of exploitation of all kinds.


Adolescents and the development of the brain

The revolution in neuroscience in the past 20 years has given us a deeper understanding of child development and, in particular, the pubescent adolescent brain.

At the onset of puberty the rush of chemicals and hormones effectively unwires parts of the brain that help the child survive by winning the attention and love of adults close to them. Neurons are lost in their billions or rewired to allow the maturing child to take charge of him or herself, to move towards a state of “independence”.

This period of transition from childhood to adulthood takes years. New research shows that the human brain may not reach its full development until a person’s twenties or possibly even thirties. Among many effects, it is being observed that teenagers in the throes of puberty have far less capacity to assess consequences of actions, while experiencing unfamiliar and deep emotions.

Thus they exhibit risky behaviours at times, and need to be challenged and offered guidance and boundaries.

In essence, the pubescent adolescent has many physical characteristics of an adult but psychologically is not nearly so developed.

The emotional intelligence to recognise and understand risks associated with love and sexual intimacy is not yet in place. In many ways the pubescent adolescent is as emotionally vulnerable as the five year old. But think how differently we parent, care for and view the teenager.

We must not get sucked into a scientific determinism that presents the brain as a computer and rejects the influence of nurture.

But if puberty creates a period of profound change, which we have all experienced, those charged with caring for children and young people have to understand the associated vulnerability and ensure they are protected — sometimes even from themselves.

Tony Staunton is an experienced local authority child protection social worker and this year won a national award for innovative practice in tackling child sexual exploitation and online abuse