In light of the shocking revelations resulting from the inquiry into the child sex exploitation in Rotherham, all our thoughts turn to how agencies can prevent this abuse happening again. One of the few groups who emerge from this report unscathed are local youth workers who alerted the police and council to the exploitation they were witnessing, albeit to find their claims dismissed as exaggeration.
Youth workers know young people in their area, and often have a better understanding of their backgrounds than council agencies. In Rotherham, local youth workers were well regarded by the young victims of abuse and their knowledge and greater understanding of child sexual exploitation meant they recognised abusive patterns of behaviour which were dismissed as ‘lifestyle choice’ by other agencies. They also worked well with the police, providing effective liaison with other teams. Alexis Jay’s report recommends resourcing youth workers’ ‘open access and outreach work’ with victims of CSE.
According to the report, the situation in Rotherham may well be typical of other local authorities. This is in itself a terrible conclusion. Yet in Rotherham, children’s social care budgets increased between 2009-2013. This is not typical – many other local authorities will have seen substantial cuts. The sharp decline in youth workers could have awful implications for vulnerable young people; CSE won’t be reported and intervention won’t happen as early as it could have. Without the presence of youth workers in the front line, a crucial element of child protection is removed – something no local authority can afford to be complacent about.
Awful as its revelations are, I would like to think that this report will help build the case for youth work as our first line of defence for young people, and make it a priority for the likes of DfE and Ofsted.