By Kieran McCartan, PhD
Yesterday I presented at an event, in London, which examined the role of multi-agency working in child protection across England. The event was framed around new changes being implemented in social work across England as part of the Putting children first agenda and the Children and Social Work Act, 2017. The event had an interesting mix of attendees and presenter’s from across the board including policy makers, members of parliament, police, social work, child protection, academics, survivors/victim charities (including, Barnardo’s, NSPCC), schools and research/policy organizations (incl., Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse and Internet Watch Foundation).
The day consisted of a series of talks, approximately 10 in total, which focused on how we can protect children better, how we can learn from good and bad practice, as well as how we can work better together to prevent sexual abuse. The talks covered a range of areas, including serious case reviews, local safeguarding boards, child protection investigations, school based education around sexual abuse, the use of materials in the prevention/discussion of child sexual abuse, the role of partnership in supporting victims of abuse, understanding perpetrators and preparation better as well as the role of schools in supporting child protection.
Some of the main themes and issues that arose for me from the event included,
- A lot of the presenter’s discussed how effective multi-agency working was the best way of responding to sexual abuse and exploitation, a clear example of this came through the discussion of the new Child House that is due to open soon in Camden based on the Icelandic model (Barnahus). In addition, presenters felt that there was a lot to be gained from the multi-agency working that went into serious case reviews, child safeguarding practice reviews and joint targeted area inspections.
- Schools were seen as the lynchpin in effective child protection, but there was recognition that all schools may not have all the resources that they need to be able to facilitate this safeguarding properly. The speakers from schools and with an education viewpoint argued that schools need the resources to deal with the safeguarding issues that they face on a daily basis, suggesting that when social workers and counselors are placed within schools then the establish can effectively respond and the experiences of everyone involved is improved.
- Cassandra Harrison from the Centre for Expertise in Child Sexual abuse discussed their research and ongoing objectives, highlighting that there is still more about the reality and prevalence of child sexual abuse that we need to understand so that we can respond to it as well as prevent it more effectively. Cassandra directed attendees to their research agenda, publications and ongoing collaborations for more information on their work.
- A representative from the Internet Watch Foundation, Michael Tunks, discussed their annual report, emphasizing the increase in child sexual abuse imagery on the internet, the adaptive ways in which it is being embedded online and an increase in reporting of inappropriate material from members of the public. The IWF emphasized the importance of getting men, especially young men, to report child sexual abuse imagery posted on traditional pornography sites or on other forums where they would not expect to find it.
- Jon Brown from the NSPCC called for a national strategy in preventing child sexual abuse, indicating that we needed clearer and more joined up thinking on the issue. The only way that the prevention of sexual abuse was going to happen in practice was through a public and coordinated commitment to it.
- Donna Smalley discussed the work that they have done with victims’ families to create a number of child sexual exploitation films (i.e., Kayleigh’s love story) to use with children when discussing sexual abuse, grooming and online behaviour. This promoted a lot of debate within the audience with some participants suggesting that that these types of material should not be used as they are harmful (referencing the work of Jessica Eaton) or that they should only be used in a certain way, with certain groups with appropriate resources (i.e., counsellors, etc.) on hand.
- The importance of language in preventing and responding to child sexual abuse was discussed with some presenter’s (including myself and Jon Brown) arguing that the way that we frame the issue of sexual abuse has important ramifications for the way that the issue is processed. Which was seen as salient in the way that we talked about perpetrators, the use of terminology (i.e., treatment vs. rehabilitation vs. risk management, etc.) and the differences between exploitation and abuse.
- Across all the presenters, the attendees and the chair’s there was recognition that sexual abuse was a health issue, not simply a criminal justice one.
- The sharing of material, resources and training was a point for discussion across the day with participants questioned how to be access up to date information when there was a lot of varying information coming from a range of sources; how to prioritize? The question was raised, whose responsibility was it to streamline and prioritize this new information so that it could be used effectively.
The event and the presentations across the day really highlighted the importance of working together to prevent as well as respond to child sexual abuse. One of the final statements made by the chair was that change had to come from communities and that if communities saw organizations working effectively together it would enforce that something was being done to tackle child sexual abuse and that they should have trust in, as well as participate with, the system.