The report of the Butler-Sloss inquiry into child abuse in Cleveland (HMSO, Cm 412) was published on 6 July 1988. (A helpful summary of the report from BMJ of 16 July 1988 is at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1834212/ .) On 21 August 2014 the report of Prof Alexis Jay into child sexual exploitation was published (http://www.rotherham.gov.uk/downloads/file/1407/independent_inquiry_cse_in_rotherham ) and is now the subject of a Commons Committee inquiry.
A discretionary inquiry (ie not under Inquiries Act 2005) has been set up by the Home Secretary on to inquire into child sexual abuse, though in controversial circumstances (see eg https://dbfamilylaw.wordpress.com/2014/09/07/csainquiry-open-letter-to-fiona-woolf-on-bias/ in relation to the role of its proposed chair Fiona Woolf). Its terms of reference are yet to be published.
In a very different part of the same child protection forest, Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division has set up a work group which has issued a modest consultation on dealing with ‘children and vulnerable witnesses’ in court (http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/publications/president-of-the-family-divisions-consultation-interim-report-of-the-children-and-vulnerable-witnesses-working-group-31st-july-2014/ ). This will be considered separately.
What has changed since 1988?
The Cleveland report was an influential document in the field of child protection and children law; and it was an important factor in the reform plans which lead to Children Act 1989 the following year. One of its more striking recommendations was that children must be treated as individuals not ‘objects of concern’. This attitude developed from another development in child law reform deriving from Gillick v West Norfolk and Wisbech AHA  1 AC 112,  UKHL 7: that the views of children ‘of age and understanding (Children Act 1989 s 1(3)(a)) must be heard by the courts when their futures and welfare were being considered.
In terms of Rotherham, I suspect, one of the more important legacies of Cleveland is Working Together to Safeguard Children (now in its March 2013 edition: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/281368/Working_together_to_safeguard_children.pdf). It is too early yet to say; but it seems highly likely that Working Together (and its demands under Children Act 2004) was not followed in Rotherham. Were its elected members and staff working for the council (as well as local police) aware of Working Together and the 2004, of how it is intended to work and its significance for children in their area? I doubt it.
Is Working Together working?
At this stage we can only pose questions; but any child sexual abuse inquiry – which must surely be chaired by a judge of Supreme Court or Court of Appeal level (as with the recent press inquiry under Lord Justice Levison)? – must address such issues as:
- Is Working Together working?
- Are children being listened to: ie not just heard: but is what they say truly acted upon by those whose duty it is to act?
- How easy is it for children to speak to someone who will listen?
- Are the police listening properly?
- How are we safe-guarding children; and making sure it happens?
- And in court (criminal, family court and other hearings), how is their evidence being dealt with; and how sensitively?
There are many, many more issues (I’ve only jotted down a few that spring to mind immediately)…
No doubt putting right what has gone wrong – and what is still going wrong – will involve resources; but that tawdry argument should not let us overlook children, any abuse they may suffer and their wishes and needs (in that order, especially where they are old enough). Politicians should start by reading what some of those who have suffered are saying now: they must be listened too as well.