Youth Services Law

Multicultural Child Abuse?

Scared 8 year old boy being abused or abducted by adult female.The governing council in Rotherham, England has released a searing report about the failure to combat and prevent child sexual exploitation (CSE) in that area. The author, Prof. Alexis Jay OBE, found that the local police and social services agencies ignored at least 1400 cases of CSE between 1997 and 2013.

British newspapers and some conservative commentators have jumped on the part of the report that says that upper level administrators deliberately ignored the fact that most of the reported perpetrators were part of the Muslim Pakistani community. Frontline staff were left confused as to "what would be interpreted as 'racist.'" Thus, pundits claim, "racism fears stopped social workers saving children."

As a former federal prosecutor for an Indian reservation, I have some experience with ethnic communities and child abuse prosecutions, and I seriously doubt that social workers left children in danger merely because of political correctness. In fact, Prof. Jay said that investigators found no evidence that frontline staff made decisions based on ethnic origins. However, she found that the local government sanitized public discussion of the problem. That distinction is an important one. The problem is no less serious, but it does call for a different solution.

With no public acknowledgement that there was a problem within the Pakistani community, members and leaders of the community had no opportunity to combat it. Prof. Jay noted that there had been only two meetings in 2001 between government representatives and the Pakistani community about the issue, even though the "current chair of the Rotherham Council of Mosques had made strenuous efforts to widen representation on his Council to include women and demonstrated a strong personal commitment to dealing with child protection and CSE."

Local politicians also hindered investigation into the problem, expressing a fear that discussing the issues would "attract extremist political groups and threaten community cohesion." Dr. Jay described them as "at best naïve, and at worst ignoring a politically inconvenient truth."

The political correctness problem, then, did not affect the decisions of frontline social workers, but it most definitely affected the resources that they had at their disposal. This dynamic rings true with my experience. I never saw tribal leaders oppose a child abuse prosecution, but social workers sometimes had difficulty convincing politicians to allocate resources for prevention or counseling.

This dynamic is not unique to ethnic communities. I worked as a social worker and prosecutor in various federal, state, and local jurisdictions during the early days of child advocacy centers, and one of the most common hurdles to establishing such a center was convincing the community leaders that they needed it. Because child abuse at that time was such an unknown problem, few people had any idea how many victims there were in their communities. It was only when the problem became public that anyone knew how to allocate resources.

I always am skeptical about calls for "a public discussion" about a given problem, as those "discussions" often do nothing than make people feel good without changing anything. But a crime such as child abuse, which is shrouded in secrecy, requires public discussion. As long as frontline workers are afraid that accurate descriptions will cost them their jobs, or politicians rank "community cohesion" ahead of child protection, then the problem can only grow worse.

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