By Kieran McCartan, PhD, Kasia Uzieblo, PhD., and David S. Prescott, LICSW
There has been the discussion of cultural sensitivity and reporting, recording, and prosecution of sexual abuse, especially child sexual abuse, in the UK press this week. Over the last 10 years, it has emerged that child sexual abuse, but particularly child sexual exploitation by networks of men in England and Wales had gone investigated because of the race and cultural heritage of the individuals in question. A number of investigations, including but not limited to the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, found that networks of men of Asian heritage were sexual abusing girls under the age of 16 for several years. The authorities knew about the cases but did not fully investigate or prosecute. They claimed that their inaction was due to being afraid – or at least concerned about – being seen as racist. The most recent case was about sexual abuse in Telford, and the investigation found that:
- More than a thousand Telford children were exploited over decades.
- Key agencies dismissed child exploitation as "child prostitution."
- Exploitation was not investigated because of nervousness about race.
- Teachers and youth workers were discouraged from reporting child sexual exploitation by members of minorities.
- Offenders were therefore emboldened, and exploitation continued for years without concerted response.
- Responses to abuse came from committed individuals not from top-down directives.
The Telford case again raises questions about the way that we think about child sexual exploitation, the language used, and the criminal justice system’s approach to it. We have moved a distance in no longer seeing victims of sexual exploitation as complacent in it. We no longer talk of them as “child prostitutes” or girlfriends or see them as willing participants as they receive “gifts” from the people who are grooming them. The police have gotten more victim focused and more in tune with the double status of young people who are victims of sexual exploitation, in that they are victims first and that offense-based behavior is often an extension of their vulnerability and history of victimization. A number of police forces across England and Wales do not prosecute young victims of sexual exploitation anymore. Rather they work to disrupt the abuse and safeguard the children; a clear example of this is Operation Topaz In Avon and Somerset and Action on ACE’s in Gloucester.
However, the same distance has not been travelled in terms of connecting with communities, especially of different ethnicities, about child sexual abuse or exploitation. The police and the criminal justice system not only need to work harder and better to hear the voices of different communities regarding victimisation; it also behoves us all to understand that abuse is abuse, and wrong, regardless of who commits it, who the victim is, and in which community it occurred. Therefore, how can we engage better on this? Our thoughts for now are:
- Sexual abuse is a community issue; therefore, it needs a community response. This is as much about culture, race, and location. We need to get communities together to discuss, prevent and respond to sexual abuse.
- We need to see and recognise that sexual abuse exists everywhere and, therefore, people all communities and cultural groups can stop abuse.
- Investigations of sexual abuse and exploitation, can occur in a culturally informed and humble way. At the same time, we can reinforce that abuse is wrong and that professionals will make the difficult decisions and follow challenging prosecutions.
- We can engage all communities and have advisory groups that represent the different cultural and ethnic communities as well as coming together as a broader society.
- While engaging communities, we need to have difficult conversations about race. These can include a focus on how to avoid (un)intentional racially tinged statements and how to strengthen our police forces and other relevant services to give them more confidence in entering these conversations without fear. However, we will need to engage communities meaningfully in this conversation, inviting feedback along the way, so that these communities also feel less need to consider comments or even criticisms as racist.
There is no question that police and others in the criminal justice system face many risks in their work. Professionals in our field can help provide information to help these processes.