Professionals who ignore child abuse face jail

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Teachers, social workers and council leaders could be sent to prison for five years if they fail to act on suspicions of child abuse.

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David Cameron at the Downing Street summit today

Hosting a summit on child sexual exploitation in Downing Street today David Cameron said that children had been let down by ‘a culture of denial’ and unveiled new measures to protect children.

Child sexual abuse will now be prioritised as ‘a national threat’, and treated as equivalent to terrorism and organised crime, which means that police forces will now have a duty to share information and resources to safeguard children.

The Government will consult on extending the new criminal offence of ‘wilful neglect’ to children’s social care, education and elected officials.

A new national whistleblowing helpline for professionals will also be set up.

The Prime Minister said, ‘We have all been appalled at the abuse suffered by so many young girls in Rotherham and elsewhere across the country. Children were ignored, sometimes even blamed, and issues were swept under the carpet – often because of a warped and misguided sense of political correctness. That culture of denial which let them down so badly must be eradicated.

‘Today, I am sending an unequivocal message that professionals who fail to protect children will be held properly accountable and council bosses who preside over such catastrophic failure will not see rewards for that failure.’

Other measures include new joint official health, police and education inspections and a new Child Sexual Abuse Taskforce with experts in social work, law enforcement and health to support local areas.

An extra £7m will also be allocated this year and next year to organisations that support victims of abuse.

The summit was attended by five cabinet ministers  - the secretaries of state for education, health, justice, communities and local government, and the home secretary.

Other attendees included the new children’s commissioner Anne Longfield, and leaders from local authorities, children’s services, health professionals, chief constables and experts in child protection.

Matthew Reed, chief executive of the Children’s Society, said, ‘Today’s announcement is a long-awaited watershed that shows we are finally starting to take this seriously as a nation. The Prime Minister is right to recognise that sexual exploitation is a national threat – and the culture of denial must end now.

‘For survivors of sexual exploitation the consequences of abuse can last a lifetime. It’s therefore right that anybody who has deliberately covered-up abuse, or wilfully turned a blind eye should face a tough sentence.’

He also called for more investment for training and resources, and added that, ‘A wholesale change in attitudes and culture is crucial if things are really going to change.’

However, while welcoming the Government’s focus on listening to children and young people, teachers' unions warned against criminalising teachers.

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said, ‘Criminalisation of individual teachers, however, will not assist and will be counterproductive in prompting over-reporting so that identification of children at risk is actually more difficult. Measures which will produce good outcomes for young people are local reviews of multi-agency working and systems, along with additional guidance and training for professionals involved.’ 

She added, ‘There should also be an obligation for all schools to offer personal, social, health and economic education which can support schools’ reporting systems for child protection, allowing a space for children and young people to consider the real life situations they may encounter, some of which are very dangerous, in a safe and secure environment.’

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, also called for more funding to protect children.

‘Schools are already required to follow stringent safeguarding procedures to protect pupils, and teachers are highly aware of their responsibilities to protect pupils and keep them safe from all forms of abuse. But teachers report that joined up working among children’s professionals, including social workers, health workers and the police, is problematic and in too many cases intervention is delayed, or does not happen, because of high case loads and inadequate resources, ' she said.

‘If the Government is serious about protecting children it must provide sufficient resources for the relevant public bodies, ensure they are joined up and invest in training and development for all professionals involved in the protection of children. Without that investment, no amount of resolve will succeed in stopping this most heinous of crimes.’

  • Read the Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation report here
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