This week’s publication of the inquiry into the catastrophic failures to protect very vulnerable children in Greater Manchester is another reminder of how agencies and authorities whose job it is to protect those at risk have too often let them down.
The details are atrocious and the impact of the mistakes that were made will still be felt today by the adult victims of child sexual exploitation.
For many it will be a life sentence, and of course for one young girl it is all too late – Victoria Agoglia, who had been in care since the age of eight, died aged 15 shortly after she was injected with heroin by an older man.
The temptation is to see all this as historical – it was 17 years ago and things have changed.
But have they? Are we actually doing all we can as a society to keep kids at risk of exploitation safe?
I’m afraid the answer is no. What happened in Greater Manchester at the turn of the century – the grooming of vulnerable children – is happening somewhere in England right now.
In fact it’s happening in cities, in towns and in villages up and down the country. We hear about it all the time on the news – another murdered young person becomes a headline, another family grieves, another council launches a serious case review. More lessons will be learnt – until the next time.
The parallels between the child sexual exploitation of vulnerable girls in Greater Manchester and Rochdale and the child criminal exploitation of county lines are clear.
A previous government successfully cut knife crime by getting a grip on the issue in the centre, and there is no reason why that cannot be repeated by this one.
Children are growing up today in the same circumstances as those kids who were targeted and used by ruthless sexual predators – they are the children running county lines or sucked into gangs because local agencies and authorities either haven’t spotted them or don’t have the resources to help. Some of them will also be suffering from sexual exploitation.
Last year my report “Keeping kids safe” warned that many of the mistakes that were made over child sexual exploitation 20 years ago are being repeated today, with organised criminal gangs involved in the drugs trade grooming and exploiting children who have fallen through the gaps. Local safeguarding boards and the police often seem ill-equipped to cope.
So reports this morning that the prime minister wants to take personal responsibility for tackling knife crime and county lines is welcome. But it must now be backed up by action and resources.
The previous government’s Serious Violence Taskforce, of which I am a member, has not met for many months, and the prime minister has not continued his predecessor’s series of Downing Street summits to ensure cross-government accountability on this issue.
Not surprisingly, politicians’ thoughts have been elsewhere – on Brexit and elections – but the minds of those who spot vulnerable kids and exploit them, have not.
No.10 taking a lead on tackling these issues would be a step in the right direction.
I’ve long maintained that serious violence and gangs will only be beaten if the PM makes it their mission and drives and coordinates delivery relentlessly. A previous government successfully cut knife crime by getting a grip on the issue in the centre, and there is no reason why that cannot be repeated by this one.
Crucially, though, it will require money. I have been calling for a multi-billion pound package to tackle the root causes of gang violence and to keep our most vulnerable children safe. We also need a root and branch independent review of the care system, which is still putting very vulnerable children in situations where they are ripe for exploitation.
I want to hear less about lessons being learnt and more about what those responsible for keeping children safe are doing – from government to councils, from the police to the NHS and schools.
The thousands of children in England in danger of becoming the next lurid headline or subject of another inquiry need, and have a right to, our protection.
This article was originally published in the Huffington Post, 15 January 2020.