QotD: “It is their vulnerability and social positioning as morally inferior objects of disgust that makes gangs of abusers target them and professionals blame them”

Professional ignorance was central to what went wrong. I worked in social work at a time in the 1980s when child sexual abuse was barely recognised. By the 1990s major breakthroughs had occurred, levels of reporting increased and it felt like a good understanding of the dynamics of grooming, secrecy and the impact of sexual abuse had been established. The horrific disclosures in Oxfordshire, Rotherham and elsewhere are humbling. Professionals have been clueless in the face of the organised barbarism perpetrated on young women by groups of men. The Oxfordshire report describes how one girl was punished by being taken to a wood and raped by seven men. Left alone, hurt, crying and naked, the person she called for help was not her parents, social worker, police or an ambulance but one of the abusers who had just raped her.

Despite having been groomed, controlled and violated in ways that left them with no capacity to say “no” and with a fear-based loyalty to their abusers, the serious case review concludes that they were seen by professionals as “very difficult girls making bad choices”.

The perpetrators did not operate in a cultural vacuum. They tapped into the cruelly oppressive social attitudes that are typical towards children in, or on the edge of, care. Their victims were from troubled families who are despised within political discourse as “chavs”, “welfare scroungers” and “the undeserving”. It is their vulnerability and social positioning as morally inferior objects of disgust that makes gangs of abusers target them and professionals blame them.

In the Oxfordshire report, the familiar finding of a “lack of curiosity and rigour” by professionals who had the wrong “mindset” was a central failing. It is vital that multi-agency training and ongoing supervision help professionals learn about both the impact of abusers’ tactics and the complex dynamics that can wear down their own compassion and judgment, so that they can avoid blaming and giving up on abused children.

Harry Ferguson

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