JimKenThis week, the Children’s Commissioner published her final report on her Inquiry into child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups. The report generated a good deal of media interest, but I thought the press focus missed a number of important issues that need much more extensive debate, says CareKnowledge editor Jim Kennedy

The final report was accompanied by two new reports on aspects of the Inquiry’s work. One focused on gang-associated sexual violence towards, and exploitation of, young people. The other looked at how young people in England understand sexual consent.

The final report makes reference to a number of other publications made available by the Inquiry during its deliberations. Those include a rapid evidence assessment on the effect of pornography on children and young people. There was also an interim report, published after the first year of the Inquiry, and an emerging findings report that looked specifically at what had been learned about children in care.

I thought it was worth mentioning the sequence of reports in this blog because the final report arguably focuses on whole-systems problems that the Inquiry has identified and on some of the initiatives the Inquiry believes are necessary if things are to improve.

That means that there is rather less of a discussion of the evidence and of the underlying issues that need to be tackled, than might be expected – presumably because so much material of that nature is in the various sub-reports. 

But, I think there are a number of issues that could have been more fully drawn together in the final report, that deserve much wider consideration and debate.

The first might have been a more extended discussion of the difficulties of research and evidence-gathering in in this area. It’s clearly the case that few statistics and/or formal evaluations are straightforwardly available. This is, in many ways, a new field, made more difficult by the complexities of the issues being addressed and the absence of clear, agreed definitions.

So, the Inquiry has had to grapple with all of that – and those issues are recognised in its reports – but I think the way facts and figures are presented, and arguments made, in some cases, add to the confusion, and fail to signal the limitations of what can be said.

For example, the core figures quoted remain as set out in the interim report: “…at least 16,500 children were identified as being at risk of child sexual exploitation during one year and 2,409 children were confirmed as victims of sexual exploitation in gangs and groups during the 14-month period from August 2010 to October 2011. 

However, the 16,500 figure is based on “children who displayed three or more signs of behaviour indicating they were at risk of child sexual exploitation.”  The 2,409 figure is a partial estimate based on incomplete returns, and I cannot immediately see how ‘victim’ status was decided.

Of more concern, I can’t tell from these figures how many of the children involved were ‘gang’ victims, or how many were victims of groups.

That’s important because it links to my second point. I’ve looked at a range of the media responses to the final report. All concentrate on the findings as they relate to the new evidence the Inquiry has gathered of the abuse that teenage girls, in particular, are suffering within gangs – abuse that is largely perpetrated by the boys and young men, who are also in those gangs.

But, on this point, I don’t think the press attention has been clear enough that (if the Inquiry has stuck to the tight definition of gangs set out in its remit) these findings relate to a very specific sort of gang – a criminal gang, already engaged in and committed to, criminal activity and violence.

That is not, in any way, to diminish the concern that some of the testimony to the Inquiry has raised, it’s just that, the awful abuse described needs to be seen in that context. You cannot adequately protect the children concerned if you do not have a clear understanding of the specific type of gang culture that feeds the attitudes that lead to abuse. 

The focus on this sort of abuse, though, illustrates another of the issues that I think the Inquiry has raised that needs much wider and more detailed consideration, and that is our thinking on, and approach to, abusive relationships between children and young people, and the arguable need to distinguish that from other forms of child sexual exploitation where adults seek out and abuse children.

This is because, as I read the accounts of gang-related exploitation, it seems clear that in many cases, the victims and perpetrator will have been children.

Additionally – and taking it back to the concern noted earlier in this blog - the Inquiry has done less than it might have to distinguish between child sexual exploitation in gangs, and child sexual exploitation by groups (generally of older men).

The final report’s conclusions and recommendations on service deficiencies and gaps – and its new evidence-based framework for protecting children and young people from sexual exploitation: See Me Hear Me – provide what may turn out to be useful supports to generic practice in tackling child sexual exploitation.

But it seems to me that, at an intuitive level at least, the circumstances that lead to children experiencing abuse in criminal gangs and those that lead them to experience abuse by groups, are inherently different enough to suggest the need for more information and discussion.

And, in particular, to ask whether there are different policy and practice implications raised by these circumstances that need to be factored into the professional response.