Take the time to listen to vulnerable children, say inspectorates

A new report finds that child sexual exploitation can be tackled best when all partners take responsibility for their roles, while also working collaboratively, with strategic goals clearly identified, understood and agreed across agencies.

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‘Time to listen’− a joined up response to child sexual exploitation and missing children

‘Time to listen’− a joined up response to child sexual exploitation and missing children finds that the police service needs to improve their response by making sure children talk to one person of sufficient skill and experience to know how to help.

Senior staff in key agencies, in particular police and health, must maintain a grip on this matter, because it is not going away. Tackling child sexual exploitation is not just an issue for local authorities, and health and the police must ensure a sufficiently senior person leads this work. A key concern remains that not all frontline healthcare staff are able to identify the signs of sexual exploitation.

The inspections looked in depth at how local authorities, the police, probation services, Youth Offending Teams, health services and Local Safeguarding Children Boards are responding to children at risk of child sexual exploitation and those missing from home, school and care in Central Bedfordshire, Croydon, Liverpool, Oxfordshire, and South Tyneside. The report finds that good progress has been made since 2014 to tackle child sexual exploitation and support children who have been missing.

The inspectorates found evidence of improvement in the multi-agency response to tackling child sexual exploitation over the past two years. However, the report is clear that there can be no room for complacency and more can still be done to ensure all children receive consistently good support from all agencies.
Raising awareness is also key to protecting vulnerable children. Children themselves can help in developing materials to help other children understand the risks. Schools have a critical role to play here, as do parents and carers, public services such as transport and recreation, and the local business community.

The report also finds:

  • Vulnerable children greatly benefit from building a relationship with one trusted individual, such as a social worker, and being actively involved in decisions about their lives.
  • There needs to be a better understanding of why children go missing. The current requirements around return home interviews are not working well enough.
  • The response to children going missing should be based on a proper assessment of all known risks. Current risk assessments by the police are inconsistent and their effectiveness is limited for some children.
  • In too many areas the health community has insufficient resources and, in a minority of cases, an inadequate understanding of the signs of child sexual exploitation.
  • There is variation in police practice between and within areas, which means some children have to wait too long to get the help and support they need.
  • In most cases observed, professionals were highly committed to engaging with children, listening to their views and understanding their experiences. However, in some cases, this engagement is hampered by poor quality assessments, inappropriate language and ill-informed statements.
  • Oversight of front line practice by leaders and managers is critical. While there was much evidence of good management in the inspected areas, inspectors still found examples of significant failures.

Eleanor Schooling, Ofsted National Director for Social Care, said:

“Helping victims of child sexual exploitation is a very tough task. We should be optimistic that this is a task that can be done effectively. Our inspections have found that when key frontline staff are well-trained, take their responsibilities seriously, work closely together and, possibly most importantly, have the time to build relationships with children, the issues can be dealt with sensitively and successfully.

“We have found that strong leadership makes a huge difference. Those areas where there was clear direction and a collective will to tackle this issue did well by their vulnerable children.

“Practice needs to improve. Local authorities, police and health services need to gain a better understanding of why children run away from home. We need to understand why the current system of return home interviews is not working if we really want to help children who go missing.”

Wendy Williams, HM Inspector of Constabulary, said:

“Police forces have a vital role to play in protecting vulnerable children, within the overall multi-agency response. Although this joint inspection has found an improvement in how services work together to protect children, there were nonetheless examples where the service provided by partners could be much better, as well as particular areas where the police service needs to improve.

“We found variation between, and sometimes within, forces as to how children were supported. This needs to improve to ensure children receive the support they need.”

Professor Ursula Gallagher, Deputy Chief Inspector of Primary Medical Services and Integrated Care at the Care Quality Commission, said:

“These inspections have revealed a clear need for healthcare providers to make sure their staff are able to not only identify the possible signs of sexual exploitation in children and young people but also, to have sufficient opportunity to do so. It is important that they are able to work together with relevant partners to prevent further harm and abuse.

“Together with the other inspectorates, we have looked at the range of services across social care, the police and health services, including general practice, A&E, school nursing, sexual health, and mental healthcare.

“The overwhelming concern from our joint review is that understanding of the signs of child sexual exploitation by key frontline healthcare professionals is inadequate. Professionals across the board need the time and capacity to build relationships with their young patients if they are to effectively identify those at risk and help to protect them. When frontline staff are well-trained to use risk assessment checklists and apply their professional knowledge and skill, this makes a real difference to children.

“The healthcare system must recognise and act on its safeguarding responsibilities in this area. If it does not, children and young people will continue to be let down by services that should have their best interests at heart.”

“We saw many good examples of effective joint working during the inspections, which all agencies must learn from. Staff in most youth offending teams were good at identifying the needs and vulnerabilities of children early on and this was making a positive difference. Probation service staff being able to make swift checks on adult offenders who might pose a risk to children helped communication between agencies, which is important so that the risks can be understood and acted upon.”

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‘Time to listen’− a joined up response to child sexual exploitation and missing children

Note to editors

  • The five joint inspections of child sexual exploitation and missing children were published from February to August 2016, which are available on the joint targeted area inspection page.