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BLOG: Lessons from Savile in resisting organised sexual exploitation

By Ruth Stark, manager of the Scottish Association of Social Workers (SASW)

Over the past 40 years, what have we learnt about organised sexual abuse, repeat offenders and the long term effects of the offending on the victims? Recent headlines about organised sexual exploitation in Rochdale and the high-profile allegations against Jimmy Savile have resulted in two different types of discussion.

In the media and among the general public there is shock and horror at the extent of the abuse and how it went undiscovered for so long, yet I detect within the social work profession that there is no great surprise but an ongoing quest to find out how we could have done things differently that might have protected more young people from becoming victims of these, and other, heinous crimes.

Back in the early 1970s child protection was about physical abuse, with the findings of the Maria Colwell inquiry dominating training courses for social workers. But by 1976 the focus began to shift and we started identifying victims of sexual abuse. The Cleveland inquiry focused outside attention on whether doctors and social workers were being over-zealous in their efforts to protect children, while within the profession we were finding out ever more about some of the serious offending that went on behind closed doors – and the power of secrecy, so evident in the Savile allegations.

Other inquiries followed. The Orkney Inquiry filled newspaper column inches and television screens over many months, with all manner of commentators expressing their views while the truth remained blurred. All the time, however, the issues of power and control persisted, aspects of abuse that are so key to understanding how offenders repeatedly attack their victims and still manage to keep their actions from being exposed.

As a social worker throughout this time, the lessons I have learnt, from both victims and offenders, have given me a clarity about these twin factors, power and control, as well as the methods used to ensure secrecy – not least the guile used by offenders to focus attention away from themselves. These lessons have been important to all of us who joined the profession to help people make changes in their lives, and have been learnt by listening to some of the most distressing experiences of victims, but also from better understanding how people became offenders. It is in this increasing knowledge that, hopefully, we can strive for more effective interventions that will reduce this most destructive behaviour.

The British Crime Surveys have in the past focused our attention on the prevalence of abuse coming from within a victim’s own family, an understanding of the sexual exploitation threat that many in society have increasingly come to understand. But perhaps we will begin to see a change in that perception as more people talk about sexual abuse and exploitation emerging from more organised or random situations. This will be a question we will need to keep focusing on if we are to reach out to those who are involved in these invasive crimes.

Where these recent revelations of organised sexual exploitation lead us is to a greater realisation of the significance of organised crime, whether in Rochdale, the trafficking of people across countries and continents or the razzamatazz surrounding people in power and control who seem to occupy space outwith the norms of society.

When Finardo Cabilao, past President of the Philippines Association of Social Workers, was killed in Malaysia in 2009 he was working to help women return to the Philippines after being trafficked for sexual exploitation. He is believed to have been killed by criminals who opposed his work. Again, power, secrecy and control.

We now need to take stock of the forces who work against us in helping people achieve change in their lives, and redouble our efforts to empower people to resist exploitation. We need to be realistic about the interdisciplinary work that will be needed to make sure that children grow up safely in our communities.

This is a huge challenge for social workers, where our skills, knowledge and expertise will be needed to continue the work started by our predecessors in protecting children. But we have to be realistic in how we tackle these issues.

Perhaps we should take note of the saying ‘there is safety in numbers’, as we know all too well that whistleblowing on your own can be a risky pursuit. Your association is here to support you in that challenge.

Ruth Stark, SASW manager