Councils leaving children at sex-abuse risk, says Ofsted

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childrenImage source, VT freeze frame
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The Ofsted report comes against a backdrop of allegations over organised child abuse and exploitation

Vulnerable children in England are at risk of sexual exploitation and abuse because of council failures, the children's services watchdog has said.

Child sexual exploitation has not been treated as the priority that events in Rotherham and elsewhere suggested it should have been, Ofsted said.

Councils had been too slow to face up to their responsibilities and plans were "under-developed", Ofsted said.

The Local Government Association said the report was "uncomfortable reading".

The report - called The sexual exploitation of children: it couldn't happen here, could it? - was commissioned by Ofsted's chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw.

It comes against a backdrop of allegations, convictions and resignations over organised child abuse and exploitation over sustained periods in locations including Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and Telford.

A separate report published by MPs on Tuesday into the Rotherham cases concluded the local authority had "failed" victims targeted in the town.

The MPs also said Rotherham was not an isolated case, child sexual exploitation was "widespread" and "serious", and questioned the performance of Ofsted itself.

Young people at risk

"Some professionals have simply failed to properly apply child protection processes to young people at risk of being sexually exploited," Ofsted said.

The report also found:

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Ofsted's National Director for Social Care, Debbie Jones, discusses Ofsted's role
  • Many local authorities were still failing to provide good support to children in care who went missing, once they had returned
  • Inconsistencies in planning meant some were exposed to the risk of sexual exploitation
  • Councils were not making the links between children missing from school and sexual exploitation
  • Local authorities' efforts to increase community awareness of child sexual exploitation tended to be reactive and ad hoc

It was "inherently dangerous for any child protection agency to assume that they need not worry about this type of child abuse because the stereotypical offender or victim profile does not match their own local demographics".

The report stressed that sexual exploitation can have a devastating impact on the life chances of young children.

Difficulties faced by victims include isolation from family and friends, dropping out of education and teenage parenthood.

It can also lead to mental health problems, suicide attempts, alcohol and drug addiction.

The report noted that 40% of child sexual exploitation victims are caught committing offences and often end up being punished by the criminal justice system for crimes committed in relation to child exploitation instead of being helped.

Ofsted inspectors found, despite statutory guidance being issued more than five years ago, some councils had only begun to address the problem strategically in the past year.

And in too many instances local safeguarding children's boards had shown poor leadership, it added.

There had been poor information sharing between local authorities, police, health services and others, leading to an overall lack of understanding, inspectors said, adding this must change.

Based on inspection evidence and case examinations from eight local authorities and 36 children's homes, it urged local authorities to develop and publish child sexual exploitation action plans as a matter of priority.

The report also includes the views of more than 150 young people and over 200 professionals including councillors, local safeguarding children's board members and local authority and partner agency staff.

'Next scandal'

Debbie Jones, Ofsted's national director for social care, said it "cannot be acceptable" that local authorities and partners are "still failing to grasp and deal with" abuse effectively.

"It is not enough to simply wait for the next scandal to happen. We are calling on all local authorities and their partners to ensure that they have a comprehensive multi-agency strategy and action plan in place to tackle child sexual exploitation," she said.

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The report comes after exploitation scandals in several towns in the UK, including Rotherham

Ms Jones said Ofsted was no exception when it came to learning lessons from recent cases.

"Child sexual exploitation is something inspectors now focus on much more closely under the arrangements for inspecting local authority child protection and looked-after children's services that came into effect a year ago," she said.

David Simmonds, chairman of the LGA's children and young people board, said protecting children from harm was "one of the most important things that councils do".

"While some local authorities are making positive strides to protect young people, it's clear that others have been too slow to step up to the plate and must do more to stop any cases where children could be at risk."

Former Children's Minister Tim Loughton said Ofsted had been "part of the problem" and had to "prove itself" when it came to monitoring the work of local councils.

He said: "The problem was Ofsted were inspecting the wrong things, it was too much about process in local authorities and protecting children, and it was not about the qualitative outcomes of are children actually safer."

He said the inspection process had been changed to become much more child focused.

Chief executive of children's charity 4Children Anne Longfield said child sexual exploitation shattered lives.

"But perhaps the most shocking fact is that the scale and extent of it across the UK remains unknown. It is clear that the agencies which are supposed to keep children safe are still too often failing to protect them."

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