Appalling as the Rotherham sexual abuse revelations have been, their awfulness and the immediate desire for heads to roll shouldn’t blind us to a scandal within a scandal. Sexual exploitation of children evokes a special kind of horror, but for purposes of prevention it is no different to domestic violence or any other kind of serious neglect. Like them it is preventable. The most important thing about Rotherham (or Rochdale, or Blackburn, or Oxford) is not the ethnicity and culture of the culprits, it is that it is in a direct line from Victoria Climbié, who was tortured to death in 2000, and Baby Peter Connolly in 2007 – a graphic illustration of the same management failures, multiplied 1,400 times.
At their heart is a Fordist concept of public services driven by fear, risk aversion and obsession with cost, all of which magnify the factors they are trying to control.
All post mortems of public service shortcomings find the same collective failure of understanding that serves to amplify demand rather than reduce it. Users are treated as separate incidents or episodes, leading to repeated assessments, referrals and opening and closing of cases without ever solving them. Families can be on a council’s books for years at direct and indirect costs of hundreds of thousands of pounds and end up no more stable, sometimes less so, than before. Because agencies work in separate silos, no one joins the dots, red lights are missed and opportunities for intervention are passed up.
For all social workers’ groaning caseload, few of the cases they see are actually new. Almost everything that comes across their desk is a manifestation of repeat or ‘failure’ demand (demand caused by a failure to do something or do something right the first time) – and it typically emanates from a small number of families, some of whose dysfunctions are registered by separate agencies but none of whom is ever seen in the round. Whatever the form the demand takes – mental or physical health problems, violence, truancy, drug and other abuse, antisocial behaviour, crime – that or other aspects of the chaotic family life of which it is a symptom will be known to one agency or another. In exploratory work on organised crime by Greater Manchester Police, officers were astonished to find that gang members, far from being undetectable masters of crime, were well known to other agencies, if not the police, and exhibited many of the characteristics of other dysfunctional families. Organised crime, said one police officer working on the project, was just one more symptom of out-of-control lives and incoherent responses to it by the community and public services. Sexual abuse is part of the same syndrome: as it now emerges, spouses and children of the abusers will likely have come to the notice of the police or council services – and have a high probability of suffering similar horrors if they aren’t rescued in time.
Why do these things keep happening? One problem, says Joanne Gibson, a senior consultant at consultancy Vanguard, which works across many public services including child protection, is the kneejerk reaction of politicians, media, policymakers and policy implementers to treat it as a people issue: the assumption being that risk can be reduced by controlling and monitoring what frontline social workers are doing. As a result the work is driven by process and bureaucracy designed to meet the hierarchy’s need to be accountable, not the needs of children or families.
‘Time and again when we study these systems end to end there is a catalogue of system, not people, failures,’ says Gibson. Social workers' attempts to engage are hampered by an inflexible, form-driven process that prevents them from taking the time to understand the family context and history. Because the work is fragmented, no one gets underneath the surface narrative the family has invented to get into (or out of) and navigate the system – ‘no one really knows the child or family’.
This is compounded by a regime of thresholds (rationing) born of perceived financial pressures that has the perverse effect of keeping vulnerable people out of the system until abuse has happened, making rescue or a return to stability that much harder. The result is a game of pass-the-parcel with people who are already bouncing around the system, leading to the perception that demand is rising. But underlying demand is stable; what is going up is demand created by the system itself. As usual, attempts to manage by cost rather than purpose just push costs up.
By the time that families are officially ‘troubled’ it may, brutally, be too late to get them back; containment may be all that’s realistically left. As pioneering councils like Portsmouth, Stoke and Bromsgrove are discovering, the earliest possible intervention is essential to get lives back on track while it’s still doable – and that principally involves spending time to understand families in the round, in their context, not the producer’s. On the basis of work with an admittedly small number of needy families, Stoke is finding that a ‘rebalance me’ approach of prevention and understanding need in context reduces levels of dependency (and thus demand) across a spectrum of services. This isn't a cost, it's a human investment – and it has the side-effect of potentially saving millions.
Could this catch on? In 2011, Eileen Munro, a respected social work academic, published a report on child protection that laid bare many of the faults of the defensive, rule-bound current regime and recommended a shift away from targets and statutory guidance towards a child-centred approach that emphasised learning and local innovation. Frustratingly, says Gibson, although there is lip-service to the report at the centre, little has so far fed through to the front line where managers paralysed by fear of recrimination are even more reluctant to trust professional judgment, particularly when austerity measures are slashing staff levels and ramping up caseloads.
As in all public services, the issue is not one of resources but system design. ‘If there is to be accountability and something held to account, then it should be the system and its current design,’ says Gibson. ‘Blaming people publicly will just reinforce the risk aversion that inhibits people on the front line from doing the right thing. The result is a whole load of new bureaucracy and inspection that effectively locks down the service and by forcing skilled caring people to comply with it increases the risk of yet more young people losing their lives’.