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Norman Wells: Doctors and social workers need to stop condoning sex with children

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(Recent serious case reviews get to the heart of the crisis of child sexual exploitation, but we are still not heeding the lessons, says Family Education Trust director, Norman Wells)

Rochdale, Rotherham and Oxfordshire. They have all become synonymous with horrific cases of child sexual exploitation. And they do not stand alone. Within the past five years, regions as far apart as Torbay, Liverpool, Thurrock, Hampshire and Bristol have also been the subject of serious case reviews in relation to the sexual exploitation of minors.

The evidence from these reports is striking. They all reveal what can only be described as a paralysis in child protection. But why? How could professionals charged with keeping children and young people safe be so negligent and fail to take decisive action against the perpetrators of exploitation and abuse?

When a 13-year-old girl from Liverpool became pregnant, why was it that ‘no agency addressed the unlawful aspect’ of her sexual activity? And why did the GP confirming the pregnancy ‘not think to raise the question of underage sex or the identity of the father’ with the child, her mother or anyone else?

In Rotherham, how could it possibly have happened that ‘children as young as 11 were deemed to be having consensual sexual intercourse when in fact they were being raped and abused by adults’? And when a mother expressed alarm about her young teenage daughter being ‘sexually active, going missing and repeated incidents of severe intoxication’, how could a social worker dismiss her concerns as the worries of a woman unable to accept that her daughter was growing up?

Or what about ‘Julia’ in Thurrock? When her mother disclosed that Julia had been raped six weeks before her 13th birthday, the GP prescribed contraception. Why was ‘the focus…on sexual health advice rather than safeguarding’?

In Oxfordshire, why were ‘distraught, desperate and terrified parents…sometimes seen as part of the problem’? ‘And why no exploration of why a girl in a deeply troubled family was using contraceptives at 12’?

And so we could go on…

‘Lifestyle choices’

All eight reports tell the same story: underage sex was viewed as a normal part of growing up and relatively harmless provided it was consensual. Again and again it was assumed that the girls were making ‘lifestyle choices’.

In the words of one of the two Rochdale reviews: it was ‘absolutely clear that the problems were much more deep rooted than can be explained as failings at an individual level’. There were ‘widely held and deep rooted attitudes’ on the part of professionals whose assumption that the teenagers were making meaningful choices about how they lived their lives was ‘fundamentally misconceived’.

A preoccupation with reducing teenage conception rates and preventing sexually transmitted infections meant that confidential contraceptive provision took priority over child protection.

As a result, vulnerable young people were exposed to increased risk of exploitation. One girl told the review team in Bristol, ‘Don’t get so hung up on confidentiality, sometimes you do need to share what we have said.’ Yet all too often, the right of the child to confidentiality trumped every other consideration. Parents were kept in the dark and regarded as a nuisance when they raised their concerns with the authorities.

The root of the crisis

The underlying problems are not systemic, but social, cultural and moral. It is time to grasp the nettle and get to the root of the crisis. A review of professional attitudes towards underage sexual activity is long overdue. So too is an investigation into the unintended consequences of teenage pregnancy strategies which have a focus on sex education, and the confidential provision of contraception, abortion and treatment for sexually transmitted infections.

In order to give children and young people the protection they need, we urgently need to recover the age of consent and review the confidential provision of contraceptive advice and treatment to under-16s. This will involve revising professional guidance to medical professionals and restoring rigour and respect for parents in relationships and sex education.

The whole notion of ‘rights’ in relation to the sexual activity of children and young people needs to be expunged from our vocabulary. Likewise, so-called safeguarding tools, like the Brook Sexual Behaviours Traffic Light Tool, which considers consensual sex between teenagers of similar age and developmental ability as a ‘positive choice’ and an opportunity for professionals to give ‘positive feedback’, should be consigned to the dustbin of history.

We need nothing less than a fundamental change in how, as a society, we view children and young people, how we perceive parental responsibility, how we treat the family unit, and how we regard the law. If we continue to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the root causes of the current malaise, we can expect to see yet more horrific cases of child sexual exploitation.

Norman Wells is the author of Unprotected: How the normalisation of underage sex is exposing children and young people to the risk of sexual exploitation (Family Education Trust, May 2017)

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Norman Wells
Norman is the director of the Family Education Trust and author of Too Much, Too Soon: The government's plans for your child's sex education

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