Yesterday saw the sentencing at The Old Bailey of seven local men for the recruitment, grooming, abuse, torture and sexual exploitation of young, vulnerable teenage girls in and around East Oxford. It was a horrific crime by any standard and, now that the trial is over, the inevitable round of official soul-searching and navel gazing has begun. The Chief Constable has apologised. The Chief Executive of the County Council has apologised (indeed the Chief Executive managed to use the phrase “lessons learned” in time to be quoted on the main evening news). The Oxford Mail put out a special issue and (predictably) demanded that the Chief Executive should resign: she has declined to do so.
There may well be plenty of good reasons why the Chief Executive should resign, but this isn’t one of them. If the police took four years from the initial rape report to setting up a proper criminal investigation, then that’s a failure in police leadership. If social workers knew that girls were being exploited and abused and did anything less than pull out all the stops to protect the girls, including getting the police to do their job properly, then that’s a failure in social work leadership. And, yes, they are also failures at an individual level of professional competence and personal integrity.
When I worked for Oxfordshire Social Services (although not in a social work capacity), one of the social workers reminisced about coming to work in the City’s Children’s Department in the 1960s (this was when the City was still a County Borough, with its own social services). The head of the department knew the names of all the children in care and sent them cards on their birthdays; the children knew that they could turn up at his office and talk to him.
Now, I’m naturally suspicious of simplistic appeals to some sort of golden age and recognise that there have been huge changes in approached to the social care of children: many of them for the better (not least the move away from large scale residential care), but I can’t help thinking that something’s been lost along the way.
I’ve read the press releases. I’ve read the Background to the Bullfinch Trial on the County Council website and it’s pretty dispiriting stuff – basically a list of security measures that would be more at home in a prison governor’s report. I’ve even watched the Chief Executive’s personal video about the case. What I see is an exercise in corporate reputation management. What I don’t see is any sign of a public service ethos that says that a 15 year-old from East Oxford who’s telling you that she’s been raped is just as much a member of the public as a sharp elbowed North Oxford academic complaining about a planning decision. And until the Chief Constable, the Chief Executive, the police officers, the social workers and all the other public servants start to rediscover that ethos, then, no – lessons have not been learned.