A serious case review into the child abuse across Oxfordshire between 2004 and 2012 has found that numerous errors were made by the Police and Social Services in their failure to stop the sexual exploitation and abuse of young girls by men across the county. Shockingly, the serious case review estimates that up to 370 young girls could have been subject to child sexual exploitation throughout Oxfordshire across the past 15 years. The review comes after seven men were sentenced to prison in 2013 for the abuse of six girls within Oxfordshire over the course of eight years.

The key findings of the review, many of which were indicative of a lack of adequate training, are as follows:

Issue of Child Sexual Exploitation Misunderstood

The review found that whilst there was no evidence to suggest deliberate neglect or misconduct by Social Services or the Police, there was a “worrying lack of curiosity” over what was actually happening to the victims. It stated that there was a failure to notice the signs of sexual abuse and that a lack of understanding led to insufficient enquiry. This is an indication that a training failure had probably occurred across the organisations. Some of the more serious abuse towards the victims included using violent objects such as baseball bats and knives, whilst others were subject to being burnt, beaten, scratched or bitten. The report found that much of this extreme abuse was noticed by frontline professionals; however were not escalated to senior managers. Dr Alan Bedford, the author of the review stated that child sexual exploitation could have been identified and prevented earlier. The fact that professional work was not good enough and the numerous failures to notice the signs of sexual abuse, along with the fact that each victim’s case was seen in isolation, meant that the abuse lasted for much longer than it should have.

Incorrect Attitudes towards the Victims

The serious case review revealed that an attitude had developed among frontline staff that the girls were bringing the problems on themselves and they were to blame. Staff described them as “precocious”, that they were “very difficult girls making bad choices”, and they believed that the girls were exaggerating their claims due to adopting a certain lifestyle. Because of this, the victims were hostile and dismissive towards front-line staff because they felt like they were being blamed. Staff reacted to this by treating the girls with bad manners and sarcastic responses. One of the victims said that frontline staff “washed their hands” of her, and they also told her that what had happened to her was “her choice”. Another of the victims said that she escaped to a police station with “blood all over me, soaked through my trousers”. She stated: “They dismissed it as me being naughty, a nuisance. I was bruised and bloody.” The language that frontline staff used towards the girls showed that they viewed their behaviour as their own fault and because of this they received much less compassion and sympathy as a result.

Confusion around Consent

According to the review, frontline staff appeared to have built up a tolerance to young teenagers having sexual relations with adults. This was due to a number of reasons, potentially rooted in training shortcomings, including a lack of knowledge of consent laws and a belief that, across the nation, children are being sexualised and contraception is available to children long before they reach the legal age limit for sexual intercourse. This lack of knowledge, combined with personal judgements that staff had made about the girls and their families, detracted from the effort that was being done to protect the girls from abuse. “The reluctance in many places, both political and professional, to have any firm statements about something being ‘wrong’, creates an environment where it is easier for children to be exploited,” Dr Bedford said. “But this is an issue reaching way beyond Oxfordshire and requires a national debate.”

Systematic Failures

Maggie Blyth, the chairman of the Oxfordshire Safeguarding Children’s Board, stated there were “systematic failings” and “unacceptable” delays when combatting child sexual exploitation between 2005 and 2010, with numerous organisational failures contributing to the prevention of the true picture being seen by staff. Child protection processes were not used sufficiently, the minutes taken at multi-agency meetings were weak, the recording of crimes against the victims was inconsistent and the sharing of information was poor. “Some organisations and some staff should have acted with more sensitivity, rigour, imagination or indeed common sense,” said Dr Bedford. “And the collective agency work around safeguarding before 2011 should have been much stronger.”

Need for Relevant and Up-To-Date Training

The serious case review of the sexual exploitation cases within Oxfordshire has flagged up the need for relevant and up-to-date training for all frontline staff to ensure that this level of exploitation and abuse does not happen again.

Since 2006 the Safeguarding Children e-Academy has worked with Local Safeguarding Children Boards across the country to deliver online child protection courses that have been delivered to over 500,000 learners.

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