As Neal Terry says the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham [1997 – 2013], which is the top news story today, bears close and considered scrutiny, including attention to the role played by Risky Business, a dedicated youth project in the town. As a contribution to further debate I’ve pulled together a number of extracts from the section, which interrogates the project’s history and practice.
EXTRACTS [read in full pages 79 – 82]
The Risky Business project was the first public service in Rotherham to identify and support young people involved in child sexual exploitation. It operated on an outreach basis, working with large numbers of victims, as well as those at risk. The Council is to be commended for its financial commitment to the project and its work for most of its existence. From 2007, the project worked effectively with the Police on Operation Central. But it was too often seen as something of a nuisance, particularly by children’s social care and there were many tensions between the two. There were allegations of exaggeration and unprofessional approaches by the project, none of which have been substantiated by this Inquiry. Management failed to address these problems and to enforce proper joint working and effective co-ordination so that the most was made of their distinctive contributions. The Risky Business project was incorporated within Safeguarding from 2011 and subsequently became part of the co-located joint CSE team in 2012.
Risky Business was a small team of youth workers, set up in 1997, following concerns by local staff about young people being abused through prostitution. After the project was established, a CSE inter-agency network was developed by voluntary and statutory agencies. In 1998, a small survey distributed by this network, identified 70 young women and 11 young men under 18 who were involved in exploitation, or prostitution as it was then termed. Area Child Protection Committee protocols were drafted and two regular meetings were established, which were later merged into a group known as ‘Key Players’. ACPC training on sexual exploitation was first delivered following the launch of the procedures in November 2000. Risky Business contributed to all of these initiatives.
The Risky Business project aimed to provide support to young people in Rotherham, aged between 11 and 25 years, with two main purposes:
a) To offer advice and information to young people in relation to sexual health, accommodation, drugs and alcohol, parenting and budgeting, eating disorder,
self-harm and abuse; and to promote their self-esteem and self-assertiveness.
b) To offer training in sexual exploitation, abuse and related matters to schools and to agencies and individuals working with young people.
For some years after its foundation, the funding of Risky Business was uncertain, though eventually the Council acknowledged its important work and increased its core budget.
Risky Business adopted an outreach approach, based on community development principles. That is, it started where the young person was; it concerned itself with the whole person and addressed any issues that the young person brought to the relationship; it did not prescribe or direct. Its methods were complementary to thoseof the statutory services. Its success depended upon the skills of the individual worker and the level of trust which young people were willing to commit to it. Its operations could be volatile, unpredictable, and even ‘risky’. Nevertheless, it was performing a function which services with statutory responsibilities could not fully replicate.Any semblance of the statutory worker had to be set aside in order to create and retain trust.
The task of dealing with issues between Risky Business and children’s social care lay with management. Given the subsequent histories of some of the young people who were affected, it is tragic that in so many instances management failed to do so. There were too many examples of young people who were properly referred by Risky Business to children’s social care and who somehow fell through the net and were not treated with the priority that they deserved. It is almost as if the source of the referral from Risky Business was a pretext for attaching lower importance to it.
Interviews with managers in post at that time (around mid 2000s) confirm this view. ‘They were regarded as a group of youth workers who were treading on their territory’ said one. Another senior manager ‘disbelieved’ what Risky Business presented, describing it as almost ‘professional gossip’. Tensions manifested themselves in a number of ways, and particularly in individual cases. All agreed that relationships were not good between the project and children’s social care. Managers of children’s social care wished to bring the project firmly into a child protection approach, whilst project staff wanted to advocate on behalf of the girls involved and protect their confidentiality.
It is not the intention of this overview to overstate the achievements of Risky Business. Its staff readily acknowledge that they made mistakes and that their enthusiasm and frustration may sometimes have led them into breaking rules and frequently getting into trouble. There were periods when relationships between Risky Business and the statutory agencies were poor, and a less confrontational approach might have strengthened joint working. A senior person from another local voluntary organisation commented that single-issue projects always faced the risk of focusing on their own issue to the exclusion of others. However, for many years Risky Business was the only service within the Council to consistently recognise the gravity of child sexual exploitation in the Borough and the severe damage that it was causing to young people. By its nature, the project’s style made a bad fit with the more structured services involved. The failure of management to understand and resolve this problem has been a running flaw in the development of child protection services relating to sexual exploitation in Rotherham.
The project has now been incorporated within the joint CSE team. It is doubtful whether its original ethos and style of working can survive this absorption into the statutory system, where it is firmly located in a child protection model. The grounds for the move included the belief that Risky Business lacked managerial and risk assessment skills, the rigour of case management supervision, procedures, risk management plans, defined roles and responsibilities, and office systems. All of which fails to recognise the quality of their work with individual children, and their distinctively different professional role, and entirely misses the point.
Clearly the findings confirm the significance of a distinctive autonomous youth work practice, which accords with our Campaign’s perspective. However the Rotherham experience opens up questions also about how our Campaign relates to youth projects focused specifically on identified social issues, what might be deemed ‘targeting from below’.