05 October 2022

Facing up to historic child sex abuse

Facing up to historic child sex abuse image
Image: Alan Collins is a partner in the abuse team at Hugh James Solicitors.

In recent months, a significant number of revelations have been made in various pockets of the UK regarding non-recent child sexual abuse and exploitation. Most recently, we have seen the arrests and charges of five men in Bradford, who have joined twenty-three others in the area accused of historic abuse in the city. Questions are naturally and necessarily being raised about the lack of proper preventative measures on the part of local authorities, and the considerable time delay in bringing criminals to justice.

History has a nasty knack of repeating itself and we only have to look at the litany of child abuse scandals of recent times to see, arguably, the truth in that. The general public could be forgiven for comprehending that the cases just roll into one with the usual refrain that the powers that be very much regret what has occurred, and that ‘lessons have been learnt’. This just simply does not add up to scrutiny.

Social services and the police have an extraordinarily challenging task when it comes to child protection and attempting to safeguard vulnerable children, and whilst nothing should detract from the excellent work that does take place, we would be foolish to ignore poor practice, abject failings, and the prevention of child abuse.

The scandals are too many to list, but they have a long trail going back to the death of Maria Colwell in the 1970s, which shocked the nation, down to more recent times with the murder of Victoria Climbie, and Baby P. These cases exposed incompetence of social workers, police officers, and doctors as well as general poor practice. These cases resulted in changes in the law in an attempt to make child protection more robust, but tragically on average one child a week is still unlawfully killed in the UK. In 2020, 36 children in England died as a result of maltreatment in the family. That is an alarming statistic and calls into question whether lessons have indeed been learnt.

A common theme is that the children concerned were on social services’ radar, if not the police and NHS too, because of welfare concerns. The abuse and in extreme cases death usually has a long and recorded history, but the child falls off the radar and what was not inevitable happens. We saw this most recently with the Telford Inquiry, released in July of this year and revealing extensive and horrific historic child exploitation.

What you often see is missed appointments with health visitors and social workers, and a false perception that the child’s welfare must be improving. Professional curiosity, if exercised, would often discover the reality.

To bring about a sea change in approach to child protection means introducing true accountability. When things go wrong and there is the inevitable inquiry it is very difficult if not impossible to establish who made the fatal decisions, and where the buck actually stops.

Accountability should rest with those who make the decisions with regarding a vulnerable child’s welfare. Local authorities have the statutory responsibility of investigating and intervening if concerns are raised over a child. However, as we have seen over the years, there are considerable failures in this area, and not just in relation to non-recent events. Training, monitoring and readiness to implement policies for change needs to occur on a local level, as well as in central Government.

There is currently before the UK Parliament the Victims Bill which aims to give victims greater purchase in the justice system, and whether it does or not is, perhaps, questionable. Nevertheless, it does afford the Government an opportunity to amend and introduce a provision that provides for accountability. It should give children who have been failed by the state when it comes to safeguarding the legal right to hold to account those who failed them. Maybe then those concerned with child protection will appreciate that if a child is on their radar, they are there for a reason.

IICSA – the Independent Inquiry into Child sexual Abuse – is due to publish its final report on 20 October 2022 and those arguing for mandatory reporting hope that this will be one of the recommendations. This is not just about child protection but also accountability too. It is widely argued that those concerned with such issues must be under a legal obligation to report child abuse concerns, and IICSA took evidence that demonstrated that had there been reporting much pain and misery would have been avoided.

Alan Collins is a partner in the abuse team at Hugh James Solicitors.

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