Rotherham child sexual abuse scandal - the lessons: We need solutions, not scapegoats

The media's blame game is avoiding the issue of safeguarding

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"Gang rape is a usual part of growing up round here," one girl said, with chilling understatement, to the inquiry into child sex abuse in Rotherham which has shocked Britain. There is no need to repeat here the full ghastly litany of brutalities inflicted on more than 1,400 girls in the 16 years covered by the report. The media has taken a grim satisfaction in doing that in great detail before enthusiastically leaping to the task of hunting down the perpetrators of the outrage.

Sadly, journalists have not had in their sights the gangs of men who physically raped and mentally tortured their children as young as 11. Rather, the tabloid hue and cry has been in pursuit of a much easier quarry – the bureaucrats and functionaries whose inaction, incompetence and prejudices permitted these chilling abusers to flourish unchecked.

Certainly there are many among the local police and at the borough council who have serious questions to answer. The inquiry by Professor Alexis Jay spoke of "blatant failures" there. Councillors and senior managers in social services "underplayed" child sexual exploitation. Police officers treated "many child victims with contempt", regarding them as promiscuous teenagers having consensual sex rather than victims of child abuse.

Yet despite that it seems perverse that the dominant media dynamic in the week has been the pursuit of scapegoats. The man most in the sights of the righteous has been South Yorkshire's police commissioner Shaun Wright, who was Rotherham's lead councillor for children's services between 2005 and 2010 when evidence on the scale of abuse became unambiguous. Most people with any sense of honour in his shoes would have resigned unprompted on the publication of last week's report.

Outraged by Mr Wright's brass-necked refusal to resign, the media worked its way down a list of other officials and demanded that they too should go – even when they had already gone. So fevered was the witch-hunt that Mr Wright's deputy police commissioner, Tracey Cheetham, resigned despite the fact that she has no connection with Rotherham at all.

There is an understandable instinct at times of crisis of public outrage that "something must be done". Scapegoating satisfies that urge. But it does not necessarily do much to safeguard children still at risk.

The same can be said of the impulse to stereotype a whole community. Almost all of the rapists uncovered in Rotherham were from Pakistani backgrounds, as they were in cases of street grooming in Oxford, Rochdale and Derby. The Jay report described a widespread perception that council and police dared not act against Asian criminals for fear of allegations of racism, though interestingly, Jay added, "we found no evidence" of that.

There are clearly distinct problems in Kashmiri culture; the novelist Bina Shah has criticised racism, misogyny, tribalism and sexual vulgarity among men "who hail from the poorest, least educated, and most closed-off parts of Pakistan". The UK Muslim Women's Network produced a report last September which showed that the sexual abuse perpetrated on white girls in Rotherham is virtually identical to the molestation of Asian girls across the UK by groups of men from their own communities. A few brave male Muslim leaders are beginning to address this within their own communities.

The danger of the emphasis on race in much of the reporting on this issue is that it invites the inference that the problem can be laid at someone else's door. Readers' comments on newspaper websites reveal that "it confirms everything I always thought about Islam", said one of the more repeatable. Yet chauvinism and misogyny are to be found in white communities, where wives are still beaten on Saturday nights when the wrong football team loses, and in black communities as "choke this bitch" rap lyrics reveal.

The Jay report bemoans an overall macho and bullying sexist culture in South Yorkshire – "not an appropriate climate in which to discuss rape and sexual exploitation" – which is far more likely to explain the lack of action than some politically correct oversensitivity to race. It makes no more sense to blame Islam than it does to look at Gary Glitter, Jimmy Savile, Stuart Hall, Max Clifford and Rolf Harris and say they reveal something dodgy about Christian culture. Scapegoating may make bigots feel better, but it doesn't do much for safeguarding children.

It is something else that should most disturb in the Jay report, but it won't make newspaper headlines. The report reveals a safeguarding co-ordinator who had seven changes of manager in a year, management reorganisations diverting staff from contact with vulnerable children, professionals working as individuals where they should be co-ordinating with other services, and systems which need an inordinate number of meetings before approving action. It underlines the need to improve the standard of records, reports, referrals and assessments. Performance management and staff monitoring need strengthening. Better two-way communications between senior leaders and the front line are required. And Professor Jay highlights tricky decisions at a time of spending cuts. How much money should go to preventive work vs post-abuse care? Do hundreds of dramatic child abuse cases need more resources than thousands of cases of child neglect which draw public attention only when a child dies?

To be fair, the report says there have been improvements in the past four years by both the council and police. But if safeguarding children is to improve, it is on unsensational issues such as these that society needs to focus rather than on a media blame game.

Paul Vallely is visiting professor in public ethics at University of Chester

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