From safeguarding to grooming gangs: is child protection working?

Saturday 13 October, 16:0017:15, ConservatoryMoral matters

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Recent years have seen an avalanche of serious child protection scandals. In Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford, Newcastle, Peterborough, Sheffield, Bristol and Telford – among others – evidence has emerged of shocking, widespread serial abuse of girls in their own communities, with local agencies accused of turning a blind eye. Yet at the same time, there has been a surge in interventions in families more generally. Local authorities are applying to the courts to grant them care orders to remove children from their parents at twice the rate of 10 years ago. In 2017, there were 72,670 children in care in England compared to 50,900 in 1997, an increase of 43 per cent.

The scandals in Rotherham and elsewhere suggest something is seriously wrong with child protection services, yet the facts suggest that the state has rarely been so eager to intervene in the name of safeguarding. General concern about child abuse has scarcely been higher, and professionals and the public are regularly on the receiving end of campaigns to help them ‘spot the signs’ of an ever-widening catalogue of potential problems, from ‘emotional abuse’ all the way to poor diet.

Some suspect that this broadening of the terrain of child protection may be distracting the authorities from more serious issues. The number of child protection plans rose from 42,850 in 2012 to 50,310 in 2016, yet the recorded evidence of abuse finds that the overwhelming majority of cases involved emotional abuse and neglect. Barely five per cent of cases were of a sexual nature.

Complicating matters, some argue that because the perpetrators of the crimes in Rotherham and elsewhere were disproportionately Muslim men, often from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds, there has been a reluctance to pursue such allegations – perhaps out of misplaced political correctness, fear of causing offence or worries about stirring Islamophobic sentiment. At the very least, some are suggesting that the lack of protection for girls in these communities is evidence of ‘official indifference’ to children from white working-class communities.

If the police, social services and others charged with protecting the young from harm are not intervening enough, why are so many parents suspected of neglecting or abusing their children? Why are so many children going into care? Is the problem one of risk-averse social workers intervening too much or are vulnerable young people in some communities not being protected at all? Why do such scandals occur in a country that seems increasingly obsessed by child protection?