Liz Davies and Nora Duckett researched this account, based on a true story, of a 14 year old girl who was sexually abused at home and also by a network of child sex abusers and she gained no protection. They both contributed to the programme by commenting throughout.
‘There are too many Beckys’
Liz Davies finds the case of a 14-year-old sexual abuse victim, to be revealed in a BBC documentary tonight, is far from unique
The Guardian, 29th August 2006
Tomorrow morning, directors of children’s services will be contacting their child protection managers to ask if Becky, a 14-year-old sex abuse victim, is known in their locality. Becky, whose story is told in a BBC programme tonight, made repeated allegations of serious abuse to the authorities.
The managers will answer that they know of many Beckys. They will most probably be unable to confirm that their service is effectively protecting these known young victims of sexual crime.
In 1998, Aliyah Ismail died, aged 13, following a methadone overdose. She had told many professionals about a childhood history of abuse and sexual exploitation but she, like Victoria Climbie, had been defined as a child in need, rather than a child in need of protection.
Police and social workers did not work together to protect Aliyah by removing the criminals from her world; instead she was offered care placements and behaviour management in relation to her drug misuse, self-harm, running away and sexualised behaviour.
A year after Aliyah’s death, new government guidance was published specifying, firstly, that such children must be treated as victims of abuse and made safe through child protection procedures, and, secondly, that those who coerce, exploit and abuse children must be investigated and prosecuted.
Nonetheless, Becky’s case shows similar failings. She was abused at home by her stepfather, she stayed with a known child sex abuser and she became the victim of abusers while in the care of the local authority. Becky, like Aliyah, disclosed the abuse to professionals and they should have recognised from her behaviour that she was a victim of serious crime.
While the focus was put on Becky solving her own problems, her abusers remained invisible in the absence of a proactive police and social work joint investigation. No amount of support services could ever protect Becky while the criminals were unchallenged. Police from the Multi-Agency Public Protection Panel, who have responsibility to track child sex offenders, should have investigated her situation by working closely with her social workers, teachers and health workers.
Protecting children from the global industry of sexual crime is now harder than ever. Children who are sexually exploited, trafficked, used in abusive images or in ritualised cruelty require a specialist response. Yet in the last five years the number of children’s names on the child protection register, for both physical and sexual abuse, has halved. The government is set to abolish the register, which is the most important and effective tool we have in working together to protect high-risk children.
It should be no surprise that Becky was left unprotected. The very language of child protection is fast disappearing. ‘Protection’ has become diluted to ‘safeguarding’ – interpreted as the minimisation of harm and the need to address child concerns (not abuse or significant harm). An emphasis on assessment of the child and family’s needs (not risks) diverts social work attention away from working with police to target child sex abusers.
Social workers must complete assessments within unrealistic timescales. The investigations involve systematic collation and consideration of evidence that should not be time-limited. Assessment is carried out by a tedious tick-box method that undermines professional judgment and limits debate within multi-agency forums, often just to telephone contact.
The division between the statutory agencies has widened since police child abuse investigation teams narrowed their focus to allegations of crime instead of accepting referrals at the section 47 threshold of significant harm. The two specialisms have been wrenched apart structurally and procedurally by policies that place little emphasis on joint investigation to protect children and prosecute offenders. There is now a gaping hole in child protection work.
State surveillance of every child and family via the children’s database has diverted attention away from children needing protection. Professionals have little client contact time when they are swamped with low-level concerns and preoccupied with computer data-entry. Disillusioned experienced workers are leaving in droves. Those remaining include new and untrained staff, left to struggle with scant supervision and vast caseloads.
Scarce resources must be channelled to protect highly vulnerable children, like Becky, rather than monitoring every child in the country. Most of the latter do not require protection, and state intrusion into their family life cannot be justified.
Children have no political voice. Becky’s story gives strength to those of us trying to stop the rapid destruction of the existing child protection system. It is not too late for every caring adult to, at the very least, argue vigorously for the retention of the child protection register.