What’s the cause of the increase in Child Exploitation?

There was a horrible discussion about child sexual exploitation on Newsnight last night (3/7/12). The Children’s Minister, Tim Loughton, claimed that there is no other way to manage children’s homes than through privately managed services, but that the local authority is nevertheless to blame for poor quality service for not managing them properly.

To me this is something of a paradox. Whilst the local authorities remain responsible for dishing out the cash to fund outsourced services, they are also asked to do so on as cheap a budget as possible. One of the main ways this is done is through cheapening labour. Workers in the employ of local authorities are usually much better organised (and therefore inevitably more costly to the employer) than in outsourced providers, so it is pay, conditions, that sort of thing that disappears when services are run in this way.
When services like this are privately outsourced by councils (see also women’s refuges, drugs services, elderly care, mental health provision etc) companies tender for the contract from the council. The one who can do it on the tightest budget usually win, which inevitably means worse service. I hate the phrase ‘you pay peanuts, you get monkeys’, because it’s insulting to social care workers who work so hard, but you can’t expect to pay people minimum wage, train them insufficiently, make them work ridiculous hours with shoddy facilities and expect an excellent service. Recognising and acting on safeguarding concerns takes training and time that many workers just can’t provide.

Loughton’s argument was that local authorities should be improving quality of care for children by moving them to safe neighbourhoods. Safe usually means wealthier, and therefore the care providers will not provide services in these areas because the properties are too expensive. Let’s face it, a care company tendering for a contract based on a new children’s home in Kensington and Chelsea, the poshest parts of Surrey, or Tatton in Cheshire is not going to win as it is not as cost effective as one with homes in somewhere like Tower Hamlets, East Hull or any number of other poor boroughs.

Market competition shouldn’t be a factor in care of vulnerable people, and this show had damning proof that 1 in 5 children who are sexually exploited are in care. That’s hugely disproportionate to the number of children in care nationwide!

When competition to provide the cheapest service is a factor, quality will suffer. The idea that you can have both is illogical. In more generalised terms we have seen this happen with the public transport systems since they have been fully privatised. While neo-liberal logic dictates that competition drives prices down and quality up in order to win out, in fact quality can never go up while costs go down. Stressed, overworked, underpaid staff are more likely to make mistakes and care less about their work. The cost of firing, rehiring and training far outweighs that of providing a reason to keep employees in this type of work.

Loughton is right about one thing – in order for child exploitation to decrease, we must improve the quality of service. But that cannot be done while services are being cut, squeezed and privatised. When you work in social care it is often said that service users come first, and that staff must take the hit of budget cuts. Of course we care about our service users, but there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding that cuts to staff costs will have a knock on effect on the client group anyway.


One comment

  1. womensfightback17

    Comment from a childcare worker

    We need to be very clear: the Tories don’t care that the most vulnerable children in society have been exploited and abused, they are not even that interested in saving money. Last week’s episode of Newsnight was part of the propaganda to justify the continued attack on working class people.

    We should remember the way that the media respond when children from wealthier backgrounds go missing. If looked-after children received comparable column inches, papers would be full of pictures of missing children on a daily basis. The tragic fact is that 2036 separate missing from care episodes were reported in 2010. Those are only the episodes that were reported. Up to two thirds of local authorities failed to meet their legal requirements in proper recording. That is a huge number of children, which will only increase as numbers of children coming into care increases.

    If we look at how sex workers are treated, many of whom experienced the care system as children, it confirms that the Tories are happy to criminalise those already living in dire situations with few or no choices. Many of the services accessed by these men, women and children have been decimated by recent cuts. With limited specific services able to support adults and children who experience exploitation and abuse, children’s care workers find themselves trying to implement difficult decisions without the guidance from experts.

    This raises a complex problem. On the one hand, OFSTED and the government have a huge issue with the restriction of the liberty and freedom of our children. There are clear guidelines about when restriction of liberty and freedom can be applied. I’m sure nobody is naive enough to think that our homes are all Tracy Beakerish; our kids are angry, sad and often very challenging. But most staff will tolerate a huge amount of violence towards themselves before stepping in to physically restrain a child. More often than not it will only be because the children are putting themselves in immediate danger. On the other hand we are told that because kids are not only going missing but also that many are also being groomed, it is the fault of care staff for even letting these kids out of the front door. Are we to lock these victims up and in effect criminalise them?

    On the premise that these two massive contractions are at the centre of this debate, it is logical that what the government wants to do is use child exploitation to whack well-organised workers who care deeply about the children they look after. This epic tragedy is going to be used as the Tories Trojan horse, driven into local authority care homes with the intention to sell them off to the cheapest bidder.

    As a worker in a children’s home it is difficult not to take the accusation of neglect very personally. I have lost count of the sleepless nights, worrying about kids that have not come home. Staff go above and beyond their job descriptions on a daily basis trying to safeguard these children, following abusers trying to see car registration plates or knocking on doors with the intention of trying to convince the children to come back with you. Staff who have had their pay slashed and conditions changed will still go out and try to protect children- of course they will. But the slashing of services such as CAMHS pushes our role well outside the job description already. Training is never a priority when budgets are cut and is always bottom of the priority list when any service is sold off. Collective responsibility of all children in society would be the first step. Stopping the process of criminalising children will help. Privatising homes is not going to stop child exploitation. Neither will attacking working class people and our children.

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