Yesterday in the House of Commons, Members of Parliament met to discuss child welfare topics, including the contributions social workers make to society, and the rights of victims of crime.
The first debate looked at the ways in which the rights of victims of crime could be better protected. Whilst this was a general debate about different types of crime and those affected, child witnesses in court were mentioned. The recommendations made included offering children in court trained intermediaries and ensuring that children were not obliged in the first instance to enter a court building to give evidence. Other suggestions included be pre-trial therapy for all victims of sexual crimes, and a national strategy for victims with mental health difficulties.
Lucy Allan MP, who represents Telford, the town recently rocked by serious child sexual abuse allegations, went on to discuss victims of child exploitation. This is what Lucy had to say:
“I particularly want to talk about the victims of child exploitation, following revelations in newspapers over the weekend in my constituency. These victims have more difficulties than most in getting heard, and in identifying that they are indeed victims, as my hon. Friend Kevin Foster identified. Child sexual exploitation is not just any crime. It affects whole communities up and down the country; it is not just Telford. It is a crime about fear, manipulation, coercion, shame, control, and sometimes blame. All too often, the victims are ignored. They are victims who do not have a voice, and for whom very few people will stand up and speak. I pay tribute to Sarah Champion for the amazing work that she has done in this field over so many years. She has given a voice to victims, and has set a precedent for us to follow in this House.
These young girls are too often white and working-class, and have multiple vulnerabilities. That is why the perpetrators are targeting them, and why they are so often miscast as bringing it on themselves, as indulging in risky behaviour, as being promiscuous and as somehow being to blame for what is happening to them. In their own minds, they often internalise the sense that they are somehow at fault.
When a 13 or 14-year-old girl is befriended by a 35-year-old man who gives her affection and cigarettes, tops up her phone, and tells her that she is beautiful and that he loves her, sometimes she feels affection for him. She does not realise that when he asks her to share a sexual image of herself, that will lead to something worse—something that she will not want to do. The coercion begins when he says, “If you don’t have sex with me”—or, “If you don’t have sex with my friend”—“I’m going to out you as promiscuous,” or as a “sket”, as they say in Telford. That is when it becomes a crime, but at that point, a 13 or 14-year-old does not know that what is happening is rape and child sexual exploitation. If she goes to the police, what does she say? She does not say, “I am a victim of statutory rape.” She says, “I’m being harassed by this person. He’s threatened to take a picture and put it on Facebook. He’s threatened to tell my mum that I’m a prostitute.”
Too often, victims of such terrible crimes do not articulate what is happening to them, so we have to be incredibly sensitive with them. Too often, they are not heard because of their vulnerabilities. I worry that a difficult family background or drugs and alcohol or mental health issues at home mean that victims are thought of as troublemakers and just a bit too difficult. Perhaps that is why these crimes were not identified for so long. Had the girls been from a different background and able to articulate more clearly what was happening to them, or able to identify that it was a crime, perhaps we would not have the cases that we see in Telford, Rotherham and Oxford.”
There follows an extended discussion with MPs from Rotherham and other constituencies which have experienced serious sexual abuse within its borders, which is worth reading.
The second debate invites the House of Commons to reflect on the contribution social workers make to society. MPs discuss their views on social work and social workers. Tim Loughton MP mentions that he is a patron of the Social Worker Of The Year Awards, and that this year there will be a reception for all the winners on the Terrace, in the Commons.
The group go on to discuss national social worker day, or World Social Work Day as it is called, which falls on the 20th March.
There is also some debate about the difficulties of working with other agencies when processing child protection cases, the problems with having time scales when dealing with such complex cases and how best to support vulnerable children and families.
Alex Burghart MP, who chaired the debate offered these thoughts:
“We have to remember that children themselves are part of the system, and it is through hearing their voices, and their views of the services and support they and their parents are receiving, that we can make the improvements that are so necessary.”
Some of the thoughts in this debate are a little naive, even overly optimistic, and also indicative of not having a depth of experience needed to really understand the issues and how they affect children and families, but the discussion is still worth a read.