The appalling revelations of systematic child abuse and exploitation in English towns and cities over the past few years have led to a considerable amount of soul-searching about the root causes of the crisis. Norman Wells of the FET has drawn together the findings of a series of serious case reviews and Independent Inquiries looking at the reasons why the abuse of so many young people was not picked up by professionals.
The evidence is utterly damning. A clear picture emerges of a culture in which underage sexual activity has come to be viewed as a normal part of growing up and seen as relatively harmless as long as it is consensual. Combined with official policies to encourage the confidential provision of contraception to minors, it becomes clear that current approaches aimed at improving teenage sexual health have frequently facilitated and perpetuated the sexual abuse of vulnerable young people.
At the heart of the problem has been the apparent tension that professionals working in the field of adolescent sexual health have faced between protecting young people from abuse and trying to reduce the likelihood of underage pregnancy. The serious case reviews covered in this report show how many professionals systematically focus on the latter at the expense of the former. In case after case, the sexual abuse of young people has been facilitated by the willingness of agencies to provide minors with birth control with very few questions being asked. At the same time, an unhealthy emphasis on confidentiality has been used too often as an excuse to exclude parents who might have been in a position to help stop the abuse at an earlier stage.
The 2015 Oxfordshire Case Review identifies the heart of the problem succinctly: “… a child may be judged mature enough to get contraceptives to have sex with an adult at an age when they are deemed in law unable to give consent to the sex itself”. To read how this contradiction has affected real children is heart-breaking. It is impossible not to be angered by the case of “Julia” in Thurrock who was abused over a number of years from the age of 12. The only response of her GP and the school sexual health drop-in service was to provide her with contraception. “Child F” was a vulnerable 15-year old with special needs from Hampshire who was being sexually abused at school. Because, the school judged her to be engaging in “consensual” sexual activity, her parents were not informed and, as a result, “Child F” continued to suffer abuse for years.
Ironically, the statistical evidence suggests there is actually no tension between sexual health outcomes and protecting children. Peer-reviewed research generally finds that the confidential provision of contraception to minors does not reduce conception or abortion rates. Indeed, a number of studies have found that easier access to emergency birth control for adolescents has contributed to the rise in STIs amongst teenagers. There really is no excuse for any health professional not to prioritise child protection above everything else when evidence comes to light that a minor is engaging in sexual activity.
Despite the fact that several of the serious case reviews have called for the Government to revisit policy in this area, there is little evidence that lessons have been learned. Indeed, recent moves by the Government to tackle abuse by forcing schools to provide compulsory sex education lessons on ‘consent’ completely ignore the evidence that it is the over-emphasis on consent as a necessary and sufficient condition for underage sex which has been a contributing factor to the exploitation of young people.
Astonishingly, the Government has recently endorsed the use of the Brook “Traffic Light” resource for identifying sexual abuse. Brook instructs schools to view sexual activity between minors aged 13 and over as reflecting “safe and healthy” development as long as it is consensual and that such behaviour should be given “positive feedback”. It is as if Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxfordshire had never happened. Quite rightly, Norman Wells calls for the Brook safeguarding tool to be withdrawn as a matter of urgency.
You might think that Helen Marshall, Chief Executive of Brook, would be hanging her head in shame and organising a root and branch review of practice. Unfortunately not! In fact her main response was to criticise the report for linking “two very separate issues of underage sex and child sexual exploitation”. Talk about putting your head in the sand! The serious case reviews demonstrate without doubt that treating the issues as separate has contributed to the abuse of many vulnerable young people.
Professionals working for Brook and other so-called sexual health organisations no longer have any excuse to ignore the evidence that their practices are facilitating sexual abuse of vulnerable young people. Neither does the Government. It is time for the scandal to end.
(Professor David Paton, Nottingham University Business School – this post is partly based the Foreword to the FET report written by Professor Paton)