Report on child sexual exploitation and missing children

‘Time to listen− a joined up response to child sexual exploitation and missing children’ is a thematic inspection report published by Ofsted, Care Quality Commission, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and HM Inspectorate of Probation.

Key findings

  • Although the pace of change is variable across areas inspected, there has been progress in the multi-agency response to tackling child sexual exploitation since 2014.
  • Tackling child sexual exploitation can be done, but only if all partners take responsibility for their role as a discrete agency, work collaboratively with each other and have a shared understanding of how to tackle child sexual exploitation.
  • Strategic goals must be clearly identified, understood and agreed across agencies, which also must commit resources to tackle child sexual exploitation. However, collective commitment at a strategic level is not always translating into effective practice.
  • The local authority, police, health and other key agencies like probation and youth offending must share information and intelligence to fully understand the local patterns of child sexual exploitation, to disrupt and deter perpetrators and to identify, help and protect children. They need to be aware that patterns of offending evolve and change rapidly, for example the increase in online grooming. A dedicated professional, with good access to a range of multi-agency information to ensure that those children who are at risk and the profile of offenders are understood and managed, is needed to best inform local areas.
  • Raising awareness across the community is crucial. Children can help in developing materials to support other children to understand the risks and issues. Schools have a critical role. The wider community, including parents and carers as well as public services such as transport and recreation and the business community, needs to take responsibility for their role in protecting children.
  • Children benefit from being able to build a relationship with one trusted individual, and being actively involved in decisions about their lives. Professionals in all agencies, and particularly social workers and health professionals, need the time and capacity to build relationships with children if they are to effectively identify children at risk and help protect them.
  • There needs to be a better understanding of why children go missing at an individual and a strategic level if agencies are to do more to protect them. Local authorities need to gather all available intelligence to understand why a child has gone missing, including sensitively encouraging children to talk about why they ran away. The current requirement that every child who has been missing should receive a return home interview is not working well enough.
  • The response to children missing should be based on a proper assessment of all known risks by the police that are appropriately shared with the local authority. Current risk assessments by the police are inconsistent and their effectiveness is limited for some children because episodes of children going missing are sometimes seen in isolation without considering wider vulnerability. This is exacerbated by the inappropriate use of ‘absence’ as a category for some children who are missing.
  • In too many areas visited, the health community has insufficient resources. In a minority of cases, key frontline healthcare professionals had an inadequate understanding of the signs of child sexual exploitation.
  • Where frontline staff are well trained to use risk assessment checklists and apply professional knowledge and skill to recognise risks, this is making a real difference to children.
  • We saw effective and persistent approaches by the police to tackle child sexual exploitation in two areas and in other cases during the joint inspections. However, unacceptable variation in police practice and performance between and within areas remains and means that some children have to wait too long to get the help and support they need.
  • The most effective assessments of the risks of child sexual exploitation involved young people and all the professionals working with them. These assessments incorporated risks and protective factors in schools, peer groups and local neighbourhoods and were regularly updated as children’s circumstances and the risks they faced could change rapidly.
  • Responding effectively to child sexual exploitation requires fundamental and established multi-agency child protection procedures to be implemented effectively. Too many cases were seen where these procedures were not followed, such as a failure in one area by the police to jointly investigate with children’s social care reports of child sexual exploitation. In some other areas, there was a lack of attendance by key professionals at multi-agency meetings such as case conferences to share information and make joint decisions.
  • Responses by professionals to children and families affected by child sexual exploitation varied widely. In most cases, professionals were highly committed to engaging with children, listening to their views and understanding their experiences. However, in some cases, their engagement with children was being hampered by poor-quality assessments and planning that failed to address all of the children’s needs. There were a small number of cases where inappropriate language and ill-informed comments about promiscuity and the giving of consent by professionals could have conveyed to the child they were held responsible for the abuse.
  • Leaders’ and managers’ oversight and supervision of frontline practice are critical. While there are many examples of good management ‘grip’ in the inspected ‘areas, inspectors still found examples of significant failures within health, the police and in one local authority.
  • Individual agencies and organisations can use their powers in a range of ways to protect children. These should all be exerted to their full extent, such as local councils’ role in granting taxi licences.