Friday, 28 September 2012

Sexual health advice compromises child safeguarding

A generally ignored aspect of the Rochdale case is the damage caused by our society's current focus on giving "sexual health advice" to the detriment of the safety of children under the age of consent.

The Rochdale case, in which nine men have been convicted of various offences related to the sexual abuse of young girls, including rape, has prompted comment on the question of certain "communities" who have been in denial, having to face up to the issue of sexual abuse. The Telegraph headline reads: Muslim community in 'denial' about grooming rings, says Jack Straw, though the Home Secretary himself is quoted as saying that it is "an issue which has to be faced and addressed within the Asian community about what’s going on there." The Network of Sikh Organisations is not happy about it being characterised as an "Asian" matter and have said that it is "something that the leaders of the Muslim community, the Pakistani community, need to address." There is a comprehensive summary with references at the Wikipedia page Rochdale sex trafficking gang.

If you want to read an extensive and heated discussion of the ethnic aspects of this case, see the talk page. That is a discussion worth having. As Catholics, I think we might be in a good position to point out that sexual abuse is not confined to one religious group and that it is dangerous to assume that there are any religious communities, professions or indeed any identifiable sectors of society which are immune from the problem.

My concern is that in the UK there is an important issue that is being overshadowed by the debate about ethnic or religious questions. The Telegraph report speaks of failures on the part of Social Services and the Police to share information and take effective action. Tucked away in the article is a brief mention of what might well be an endemic failure in the system.
"The report centres on the case of one girl called “Suzie” who was given sexual health advice rather than being treated as a child at risk.
The Review published by the Rochdale Borough Safeguarding Children Board (p.15) mentions that Barnardo's acknowledged the mistake of focussing on the neglect and abuse of babies at the hands of their parent or carers (because of recent high-profile cases) and failing to recognise child sexual exploitation as a mainstream child protection issue.
"Social work practitioners and managers wholly over estimated the extent to which Suzie could legally or psychologically consent to the sexual violence being perpetrated against her." (p.19)
A team was involved in Suzie's case which "provides one‐to‐one advice to vulnerable young people in respect of their sexual health." Were they suggesting that the children try to persuade the rapists to wear a condom? We also hear that:
When it was reported that Suzie was pregnant, children’s social care’s focus shifted to the welfare of her unborn child. (p.12)
Really? I would be surprised if none of the social and healthcare agencies involved suggested that the life of the unborn child should be "terminated."

After Suzie disclosed further abuse to the police, the social care agency focussed on the safety of her baby (p.6) and child protection procedures were initiated in respect of the baby. This is consistent with the emphasis, acknowledged in the report, on abuse within the home to the detriment of the investigation of serious abuse of girls under the age of consent.

While admitting the importance of the recommendations made by the report: for more training, for inter-agency co-operation and awareness-raising, we should not go along with the report's failure to address the matter of the age of consent, and its blithe handling of the matter of advice on "sexual health."

The age of consent is routinely undermined in sex education given in schools, in the availability of contraception for young people under 16 and in the provision of the morning after pill without the knowledge of parents. This, together with a light-touch approach to prosecution, leads to the discussion of whether or not a young person under 16 has consented to sexual activity, a discussion that the age of consent was brought in to prevent: and brought in precisely as a result of the trafficking, prostitution and rape of young people.

The offering of "sexual health advice" to Suzie (and presumably others among the victims of these sordid crimes) to the neglect of effective criminal investigation should be a key focus in the aftermath of the prosecutions.

We should not let this case pass by without asking serious questions about the routine ignoring of the age of consent and the provision of "values free" sexual health advice which is complicit in the exploitation of the young, and in this case their continuing to suffer as victims of serious crimes without adequate being given protection from their assailants.
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