By Penny Thompson, Pinaki Ghoshal, Nev Kemp, and Graham Bartlett
Jean Calder wrote in the Brighton and Hove Independent last week (Friday 7 November) about her concerns about child sexual exploitation.
She reflected on the lessons learnt from the recent report about what has happened in Rotherham and linked this to her experiences working in social work in the 1980s and 1990s.
All agencies are committed to supporting and challenging each other to do the very best they can for children and thus to work together even more effectively.
Our ambition is to ensure that no child in this fantastic city has to experience what children in Rotherham have experienced.
In the city today and in the past, however, there are children being sexually abused and sexually exploited.
There are children in every town and city in the country who are suffering from this abuse.
We should never pretend that this is not happening or that somehow it will just go away.
Our social workers, teachers, police officers, youth workers, nurses and doctors have to tackle cases where children are suffering such abuse all too frequently.
Those of us who are parents are constantly forced to reflect on the cases we work with in the context of how we would feel if it were our children who were suffering the abuse.
We are determined to listen to what children and young people say, to review if our services are helping or failing children, to ensure that our staff are skilled and supported appropriately and that when we become aware of sexual abuse or exploitation that we protect and support the children while also pursuing those responsible.
Our investigations can sometimes be hampered when children do not perceive themselves as victims.
Some will see their abusers as boyfriends, girlfriends, or guardians. In such cases, we need to understand exactly what is happening, we may need to remove the children to somewhere safe and we need to develop a relationship of trust with the children.
The work is tough but it is our duty and our responsibility to do what is right.
In her article, Jean referred to “child prostitution”. We would like to reject this terminology, which suggests that it is a form of prostitution where children make a choice to sell sex.
Children do not make these choices. They are groomed and/or abused. It is the adults who determine the abuse.
In the past, some professionals who should have protected children have taken the view that they were somehow responsible for the abuse they suffered. This is not our view.
In the 21st century, we should do everything we can to ensure children can enjoy their childhood and that they can be supported to become happy adults who, in turn, will be responsible for nurturing the next generation of children, many of whom will be alive in the 22nd century.
To protect children, we have staff who try to identify those who we believe might be vulnerable, perhaps because they are missing from their homes.
We need to be vigilant when children refer to new boyfriends or who have gifts or money that they receive from such boyfriends.
We need to keep an eye out for children whose behaviour changes for no apparent reason or whose schoolwork dramatically deteriorates.
We need to question what is going on when children’s behaviour and language becomes more sexualised and we should be alert for children who are afraid.
If you have such concerns, you can contact dedicated teams who are there to protect our children.
As Jean says at the end of her article, we should never let our children and young people down. We agree.
If you believe that there is an emergency, then you must contact the police immediately.
If you are worried that something is not quite right, then please contact our new Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH).
This new team – which we set up in September – includes staff from different professions who work together to share intelligence, assess needs, co-ordinate support and intervene if appropriate.
They can be contacted on 01273 290400 or at MASH@brighton-hove.gcsx.gov.uk.
Penny Thompson is the chief executive of Brighton and Hove City Council, Pinaki Ghoshal is the council’s director of children’s services, Chief Superintendent Nev Kemp is the Brighton and Hove commander for Sussex Police and Graham Bartlett chairs the Local Safeguarding Children Board.