Stopping abuse in an abusive society

Felicity Dowling on the Rotherham child abuse report

The Rotherham report demands a huge and sustained hue and cry for justice and a determination that organised abuse must end. As Nelson Mandela said “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”. Abuse is a stark reminder of the situation of our children and it is firmly tied into the abusive society we live in. UNICEF reported that in 2007 “… children and young people in Britain were among the unhappiest, unhealthiest, poorest and least educated in the developed world in the early years of the new millennium”. This was before austerity which has hit children so hard. Child poverty means rickets is returning to Britain.

Our society raises and facilitates some people who viciously inflict sexual hurt on our youngsters, many women and unknown numbers of men. These abusers gain destructive, selfish pleasure from the pain and abuse they inflict, and some make huge profit from it. In this article I focus on the organised abuse of children in Rotherham and other areas. Another article covers the abuse by powerful men in children’s homes. Much child abuse is committed by people known to the child; most planned through grooming. Those who work with children are now all trained in issues of child abuse and safeguarding. It is something people are supposed to be alert towards and proactive about. The failure in Rotherham must be seen in this light. Ignorance is no excuse. Some child abuse though, is organised and commercialised. Tom Watson MP, who campaigns on this issue, wrote in January 2013: “Where are the statistics of children illegally adopted, children trafficked for domestic and sexual exploitation, children who are victims of the ‘global industries of child abuse’ such as online abuse and abusive images? All these forms of child sexual abuse are under-reported and largely absent from the official statistics”.

The majority of abusers, by current research, are overwhelmingly men, but there are women involved. An article in 2009 reported that “Research suggests that between 5 and 10% of sexual offences against children are carried out by women, either acting alone or with a male accomplice”.

Nothing in this article in any way is intended to undermine the significance of any abuse to any child. Every child should be safe well, loved and well cared for. Sexual abuse of children can happen in all classes of this society. There are press reports of conviction for sexual and physical abuse at the schools Nick Clegg, Tony Blair, and Boris Johnston attended.

The abuse in Rotherham, though, cries out for a response from all who care for children, from the labour and trade union movement and from the left. These children live in an area represented by Labour, where people over generations have trusted the Labour and trade union movement to look out for their families and children and they have been betrayed.

The children of Rotherham were exposed to and left unprotected from organised violent serial rape, physical assault and abuse. They experienced contempt from services that should have helped them; contempt based on their youth, their class, their gender, and on their vulnerability per se as young people. All youngsters go out into the world unsure and having to find their way. It’s up to the adults to make the world safe for our young people in their teens. It does not in this case help, I feel, to try to sub-categorise some as ‘vulnerable’; their youth itself makes them all vulnerable.

Outside the home and school, (and inside the home and school for some) this society shows little care, and less respect for our “youth”, inflicting poverty, discrimination, Asbos, exclusion areas, “mosquitos, stop and search, dismissal of rape as a crime, this then compounded by cuts in youth services and education, mass unemployment, inadequate public transport (Rotherham report, Sec 8.25, p73) and unsafe towns and cities.

One frightening aspect of Rotherham was that once these men wanted a girl there was so little family, friends or the girl involved could do to get away from the violent and organised abusers who seemingly did as they liked, without police constraint. Even after court cases, they were not safe. Earlier reports have been given a brief outing in the press and maybe a conference as follow up, but then smothered. Alexis Jay, the author of the report, speaks of a series of reports on Rotherham (one from as long ago as 2001) and of the problem being openly publicly accepted, then ignored and no action taken. We must not allow this report to be smothered.

A window of hope has opened for the survivors of abuse in the Catholic Church, in children’s homes, by ‘celebrities’ and by prominent politicians; we must not let that window of hope close. Helplines report being overwhelmed by the number of adult survivors calling in. We must applaud the work of the organisations of survivors and the work of those professionals who have held true to their cause and fight on, with and for their service users. Left Unity must try to support their campaigns for justice such as those run by National Association for People Abused in Childhood and the Care Leavers Association.

We want all our children to be safe. I use the possessive pronoun “our” about children because much of the media and government policy attempts to alienate people from children; to keep children as a family – and often just one woman’s – responsibility. Yet the provision of care for children throughout history has been a communal responsibility. This society expects women to work and not to have childcare. Across Britain grandmothers are providing childcare in the absence of communal provision. Women cannot claim benefits to look after children if they are over five. Mothers earn significantly lower wages than average with a gap of up to 36%. De facto part time work does not give equal pay. In this situation I believe it is right to speak of our children.

It is difficult to describe the appalling nature of the abuse that the victims of sexual exploitation in Rotherham have endured over the years” (Rotherham report, Sec 5.6, p35).

The Rotherham report is wide ranging and detailed, I will make no attempt to summarise it, the full report can be accessed and is available for download here . It is worthy of being read in full and discussed in far greater detail than this article allows. I will though respond to it. Such a damning report deserves a political response and, as a political party committed to oppose all discrimination and abuse, as a socialist party, as a feminist party and as anti-capitalists, it is our responsibility to respond.

The courage required of children to give evidence against their attackers has been rightly commended, but the challenges cannot be underestimated” (Rotherham report, Sec 5.14, p36).

With a very small number of exceptions, there was little or no specialist counselling or appropriate mental health intervention” (Rotherham report, Sec 5.38, p43).

Our care system is in crisis. Some children are exposed to exploitation when they become looked after. Children are still going missing from children’s homes.

In a number of the cases we read, children and young people had pregnancies, miscarriages and terminations. Some had children removed under care orders and suffered further trauma when contact with their child was terminated and alternative family placements found. This affected not just the victims themselves, but other siblings who had developed attachments to the baby. However, there were other cases where vulnerable and sometimes very young mothers were able, with appropriate long-term support, to recover and successfully care for their children.” (Rotherham report, Sec 5.39, p43).

The report gives many examples of, but does not explore, the cancer at the heart of some men’s sexuality, where violence, power and abuse are eroticised and turned into a commodity to be bought and sold. The abuse described in the report caused suffering across generations. Many men consciously reject such abusive behaviour. The fathers and brothers who fought for their daughters and sisters in this case showed this.

“In two of the cases we read, fathers tracked down their daughters and tried to remove them from houses where they were being abused, only to be arrested themselves when police were called to the scene.” (Rotherham report section 5.9 page 36).

The young girls and women, the young men and boys and their parents who fought to keep them safe, their friends, siblings, teachers, youth workers, social workers, and even their own children were affected. Again the courage and the grief of the children described in Alexis Jay’s report are heart-breaking.

It comes as no surprise that this has taken place in the South Yorkshire police authority: this is the force who saw fit to beat up miners and collaborate with the destruction of communities on the orders of Thatcher, who allowed the 97 Liverpool fans at Hillsborough to die, then lied about them and joined with the press and the Tories to deny them justice. Justice, truth and decency have been missing from their leadership for decades.

Abuse is a matter for all of us. We must be concerned about that in families and across class boundaries, but in this instance we talk of the organised abuse of the children of the poor. “Child abuse occurs within families and this context provided the focus of the Laming and Munro reviews (2009 and 2011). However, there is a vast international child abuse industry that exploits children and includes trafficking for commercial, domestic and sexual exploitation, online abuse, the illegal adoption trade, the illegal organ trade and the trade in abusive images. These are not marginal issues but are addressed by child protection professionals on a regular basis.” (written evidence by Dr Liz Davies to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Education). Liz Davies writes and campaigns on many child protection issues.

Alexis Jay’s report comments that “Dr Heal’s [a researcher working in Rotherham on a Home Office funded project -FD] reports present a vivid and alarming picture of the links between sexual exploitation, drugs, gangs and violent crime in Rotherham from 2002 to 2006. They were widely distributed to middle and senior managers in all key agencies. There is no record of any formal, specific discussion of these reports.” (Rotherham report, Sec 10, para 2, p83). So the council had the facts and chose to ignore them and to allow it to continue. Some council employees reported to Alexis Jay that they suspected family links with taxi drivers and others involved in abuse. The police said there was no evidence.

Cuts and austerity share the blame; Labour shares the blame for not fighting the cuts. This happened on their watch. They must take responsibility and those most directly involved must go.

Youth workers told us that preventive work they had previously carried out with vulnerable groups of female and male teenagers, including those from minority ethnic communities, was no longer offered because of cutbacks. None of these children was referred to Risky Business, [a very effective local agency, much praised in the report -FD] and only one was referred for specialist counselling, where there was a long waiting list.” (Rotherham report, Sec 6.8, p47)

We are not “all in it together”; the rich have become even richer, to unprecedented levels, during this crisis. The pain has been borne by working class communities and especially the women and children. Life saving services have been cut and Labour has not raised even a whimper. This country can afford properly funded youth and social services.

This was abuse perpetrated by men across ethnic groups, on vulnerable young people, mainly girls and young women, across ethnic groups. Asian girls were targeted but cases were not taken up by social services. Our anti-racism must include listening to women and girls and should never excuse patriarchal attitudes. “One of the local Pakistani women’s groups described how Pakistani-heritage girls were targeted by taxi drivers and on occasion by older men lying in wait outside school gates at dinner times and after school.” (Rotherham report, Sec 11.14, p94). The Guardian published a further account of abuse within an Asian community by Ruzwana Bashir. She describes a twelve year old going repeatedly for morning after pills and no one asking her if she was OK.

This report is being used by the far right to pump up their racism. The far right have an appalling record on violence against women and girls. One EDL member was charged with sexual abuse of a 14 year old girl. Rape, according to the BNP, is like being force fed chocolate cake! Searchlight reports that the BNP had two councillors in Rotherham during this period without raising the issue.

The ethnic, cultural, social origins of the perpetrators of these crimes reflect the ethnic, cultural, social makeup of the area they occurred in; far, far more significant is the fact they are men, operating in a rotten patriarchal capitalist society, where violence against women and girls is rife. Two men each week kill their partner in the UK. Tens of thousands of women are registered with the police as being at risk from their partners. Women are used as chattels and commodities in the brutal organised sex trade, the ‘legitimate’ press parade images of very young women for voyeur’s satisfaction. This abuse was men abusing young people. Most of the reported abuse was on girls, but boys were abused, but were less likely to have abuse reported. At least one boy was murdered. Describing this situation is not to blame all men.

The risks from the eroticisation of abuse and violence, and the crude use of power in sex, also need to be discussed in schools and discussed in well-funded youth work; our children need to see the dangers and be able to be part of the movement to end it.

The Rotherham report gives detailed evidence of how shortage of staff and overwork of staff contributed both to the case work problems and to the lack of effective joint action (Rotherham report, chapter 12, p97). For example, the political leadership in Rotherham was appalling. Far from being “politically correct” the council leadership, officers and politicians, were shown to be bullying, sexist, neglectful of their duty and cruel. Examples of the lack of democracy are given in the report, cataloguing the hurt wreaked on children and their parents; abuse which the establishment at best, ignored.

Some people mentioned in the report stand out as being effective and responsible. They need to be roundly commended. A researcher, Dr Heal, who catalogued the problems was mistreated; her work, though funded and organised through the Home Office, ignored. Faced with horrific cases and ineffective police responses, she delivered a well prepared formal written account by hand to the police station for the senior police officers. She was reprimanded for daring to present such a report and the report was ignored. She was then disciplined in work by the council and ‘side-lined’. The current report by Alexis Jay describes Heal’s earlier report as thorough and accurate, but ignored.

“How sharply our children will be ashamed

taking at last their vengeance for these horrors

remembering how in so strange a time

common integrity could look like courage”. (Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Talk)

The latest report speaks of the police considering some girls/young women to be beneath their contempt. The police had warped ideas as to what was, and what was not, rape and sexual assault. Kier Starmer, previously Director of Public Prosecutions, quoted in the report, produced a list of conditions that some police and prosecutors had thought stopped rape being rape, and so prevented prosecutions:

The victim invited sex by the way they dressed or acted

The victim used alcohol or drugs and was therefore sexually available

The victim didn’t scream, fight or protest so they must have been consenting

The victim didn’t complain immediately, so it can’t have been a sexual assault

The victim is in a relationship with the alleged offender and is therefore a willing partner

A victim should remember events consistently

Children can consent to their own sexual exploitation

CSE is only a problem in certain ethnic/cultural communities

Only girls and young women are victims of child sexual abuse

Children from BME backgrounds are not abused

There will be physical evidence of abuse

(Rotherham report, Sec 8.6, p75).

Schools by and large did well in this report: “…the largest proportion of referrals to the sexual exploitation team came from schools.” (Rotherham report, Sec 8.15, p71). The schools worked with “Risky Business” to provide extensive training in awareness of sexual abuse. The young people, though, were scathing about the kind of sex education they had received in school. Schools clearly need to teach subjects declared ‘taboo’ by the establishment. The shadow of Tory ‘Section 28’, the ongoing press response, and the policies of some religious schools still make it hard for children who are gay, lesbian, trans or bi to get effective advice in their teens. The report says that young gay people also need good sex education to alert them to the dangers of exploring their sexuality in unsafe environments.

So how do we respond to this report? Campaigners and survivors’ groups from the children’s homes scandals have demanded a national inquiry headed by a tribune who has the respect of the population. Michael Mansfield has been suggested, as someone who has been fearless in his fight for justice in many cases including the Hillsborough campaign, and he has agreed to do so. Left Unity should support this. Any tribunal must include representatives from organisations that have held true to their support for children, like the trade unions and others. All survivors must have adequate and free legal representation. For any kind of justice to be served the government must deliver support and nurture for the survivors throughout their lives. Post-traumatic stress disorder can fracture recovery at any time in a survivor’s life. That care must be there for now and in the future.

NHS mental health services for young people must be immediately removed from tendering and given significantly more funding. Cuts in social service funding must be reversed. The pressure at work for social workers must be addressed by a recruitment and training drive, and by a shorter working week.

This bunch of Tories, well laced with known abusers is unfit for the task of clearing this putrid scandal by bringing the perpetrators and their collaborators to justice. Neither is Labour fit for this task. They dominated Rotherham through the period covered by this abuse and ran Islington in earlier scandals. Nor can they be responsible for the lifelong care for these survivors.

Working class children need working class organisations to stand up for them and to demand respect for their rights. The socialist, trade union and women’s movement must respond. How will this help? In the 1980s women campaigned to make Domestic Violence a trade union matter. This helped open up that subject to the public gaze, made it a problem for the whole society and stopped the “scream quietly or the neighbours might hear” mentality. It began to improve, somewhat, the life of women in this society. I believe that the campaign for child safety and care must be the same, but more effective. This report is our business; these are predominantly the children of working class communities.

We need to build a new political movement. We need to fight poverty, especially the deliberately imposed poverty and hopelessness created by austerity. Left Unity can support and help build community organisation and community solidarity that can speak out for the needs of young people. We must fight the attempt to return to the workhouse, with sanctions and food banks. We must fight the gross levels of poverty in working class families with children where nearly one in three of our children are in recognised poverty and most of them have an employed parent. Poverty benefits and poverty wages must go.

We can build a new political party committed to the interests of children. We need a better world. A better world is possible.

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6 responses to “Stopping abuse in an abusive society”

  1. bob walker says:

    Felicity Dowling has worked really hard to produce this article.It is brilliant.I would like to call on Left Unity to lead the fight NOW to bring these evil bastards to justice.

  2. Brownface says:

    Hope this will help in isolating ethnicity from child abuse as “There are press reports of conviction for sexual and physical abuse at the schools Nick Clegg, Tony Blair, and Boris Johnston attended.”This report is being used by the far right to pump up their racism. The far right have an appalling record on violence against women and girls. One EDL member was charged with sexual abuse of a 14 year old girl. Rape, according to the BNP, is like being force fed chocolate cake! Searchlight reports that the BNP had two councillors in Rotherham during this period without raising the issue”

    Good account but unnecessarily LEFTY
    Lt us also remember “

  3. Simon Hardy says:

    The abuse that has been uncovered in Rotherham is shocking, and it is even more shocking there was (once again) an institutional cover up.

    It is right to talk about what this means and how we can build a campaign to stop it happening again, as well as bringing the perpetrators to justice.

    However, I think we have to be clear as well that the vast majority of abuse happens in families in people that the children know – after all the nuclear family is also an institutions that perpetuate abuse.

    We need to be talking about the issues with families and the way that society operates at a more fundamental level as well.

    This article also mainly focuses on sexual abuse when it seems to me that neglect is the biggest form of abuse in Britain – this disproportionately effects working class as well as very poor families. The conclusion talks about eliminating poverty which is a very important way of combating his form of abuse, but elsewhere in the article neglect is barely mentioned as a priority.

    For instance as the NSPCC points out – whilst 1 in 20 children may suffer sexual abuse, the numbers who experience neglect are much higher Neglect
    Neglect was the most prevalent type of maltreatment in the family for all age groups. One in seven children aged 11-17 (13.3%). Almost one in ten (9.8%) have experienced severe neglect. Also 1 in 5 children has experience of domestic violence between two adults. (

    I think there is a danger that people react to what is in the news right now and don’t explain the wider context around what abuse is and how we can safe guard children. We have to be careful that these particular and horrific accounts of child abuse aren’t used as something to obscure other equally or even worse forms of crimes against children.

  4. anna says:

    This is a great article, Felicity. Thank you. I agree we need to look at the dark heart of our culture that normalises the sexual abuse of children and young adults through pornography and prostitution. I am convinced that this is a major reason that so many cannot recognise abuse when they see it. Because it is so embedded in the culture and so many men use it to get off on.

    And as you so rightly mention, any attack on families is an attack on our children. The effects of Austerity, benefit cutbacks and sanctions, zero hour contracts, cuts in funding to services, including child protection, etc is terrifying and will tip/is tipping many families into crisis.

  5. Elaine Mc says:

    Great article and thank you for highlighting the key issues and lessons that need to be learnt from this appalling case of child abuse. The BBC documentary last night also demonstrated how the authorities and police failed these children, it’s not surprising that children being abused are reluctant to report abusers. The lack of action taken by police and authorities, for whatever reasons has resulted in protecting the abusers and stigmatising the abused. It’s absolutely right that this inquiry employs someone who is well respected if we are going to attempt to gain some kind of confidence in a society that cares about its children. Left Unity should support Michael Mansfield as head of this inquiry.

  6. Phil Pope says:

    the right are trying to portray this as asian men abusing white girls. the bare statistics seem to show this but I heard the very good point on the radio that asian girls are very unlikely to report abuse, especially so if the abuser is white. This may have something to do with cultural conceptions of shame but could also have a lot to do with lack of trust between asian children and predominately white police and social services.

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