I was interested to read in the Daily Telegraph that Sir Thomas Winsor, the chief inspector of constabulary, has identified serious failings in police responses to allegations as an important factor in the child sexual exploitation scandals in Rotherham and other English towns. He is quoted as saying that senior officers were “principally responsible” for failures to investigate allegations.
Sadly there is a knee-jerk response within parts of the political establishment and the popular press, that when things go wrong in child protection, it is usually the local authority, and particularly children’s social care, which is to blame. Sir Thomas’ comments are useful in helping us to remember that, in a multi-agency (‘working together’) child protection system, failures are often a product of failures by more than one agency or dysfunctional interaction between agencies.
If police officers are unwilling to investigate or prosecute, then the local authority’s job can be impeded. With sexual abuse of teenagers by non-family members the local authority has limited powers to gather evidence concerning perpetrators and often lacks the means of doing so. For intelligence and surveillance information, which could establish that a young person is at risk of significant harm through sexual exploitation, social workers are often wholly dependent on the results of police activity.
At the very worst, different agencies can begin a spiraling process of convincing each other that problems do not exist. The police have not prosecuted, so the local authority has insufficient reason to intervene, which is interpreted by the police as according low priority to the case (or cases) which in turn results in less resources being made available for further police enquiries and so on.
Something similar also happened in the Baby Peter case, where the police did not pursue a prosecution of the mother, resulting in the local authority deciding that there was insufficient evidence for care proceedings, leading to the police believing that it was a low risk case etc. etc.
I believe that it is entirely unprofitable trying to decide which agency is more or less to blame in cases like these. The focus of attention, rather than being whom to blame, must be on identifying ways in which mutually reinforcing loss of situation awareness can be avoided in future.