Is the report of the Children's Commissioner into child sex abuse "hysterical and half-baked"?

21 November 2012

"'ve been accused of being - and I quote - "hysterical and half-baked" and your statistics are "sensationalised and not robust""

John Humphrys, Radio 4 Today Programme, 21st November 2012

In the past month, the story of Jimmy Savile's alleged abuse of children has continued to generate daily headlines. It therefore comes as no surprise that the latest research by the Children's Commissioner into child sexual exploitation has attracted considerable media attention. What is perhaps more unexpected is the level of criticism it has been subjected to.

This morning, in an interview with Deputy Children's Commissioner Sue Berelowitz, John Humphrys suggested that - according to the Government - she was exaggerating the scale of the problem. 

The report states that over the course of a year 16,500 children "were identified as being at high risk of sexual exploitation". Its research also shows that some 2,400 children were confirmed as victims of sexual exploitation in gangs or groups, although according to the Deputy Commissioner, this is likely to be a conservative estimate.

Are the numbers "robust"?

The Child Sexual Exploitation Inquiry interim report focuses on children who have been, or are at risk of being, sexually exploited by gangs or groups. It does not make reference to those children who are abused in their home, or by a relative or friend.

The definition of sexual exploitation is quite broad. Generally, it involves a young person receiving something (whether that be food, accommodation, affection or money) as a result of them "performing" (or others performing on them) sexual acts. While violence and intimidation are common, the main hallmark of a relationship like this is the exploitation of a child's vulnerability. So at one end of the spectrum a child might be raped in exchange for cigarettes; at the other end, a child might be persuaded to post sexual images on the internet. Both scenarios would come under the definition of child sexual exploitation.

A 'gang' is defined as being mainly comprised of men or boys, aged between 13 and 25 years, who are involved in other criminal activities besides sexual abuse; a "group" would consist of those who congregate for the purpose of committing sexual abuse.

According to the Children's Commissioner, "The evidence and data collected to inform the findings of this report is the most thorough and comprehensive collection of information on child sexual exploitation to date". So why is the Government so dismissive of its analysis?

During his interview, John Humphrys suggested why some people might be sceptical about the report's findings - in particular, the claim that 16,500 children are at "high risk" of sexual exploitation.

How do you define "high risk"?

The report states that a child will only be considered to be "at high risk" of exploitation if they meet certain criteria of behaviour. In Appendix A of the report, we find a check-list of "warning signs"; a child must tick three boxes to be classed as "at high risk".

However, as John Humphrys points out, some of these "vulnerabilities" or "behaviours" seem startlingly mundane and might even be described as normal teenage behaviour. For instance, if a 15 year old girl appears to be suffering from "low self-esteem or self-confidence", is "absent from school" and undergoes "changes in (her) physical appearance", she'd make it onto a "high risk" register.

On the other hand, many of the other "vulnerabilities" or "behaviours" are more plausible: "repeat sexually-transmitted infections, pregnancy and terminations" or "evidence of gifts from unknown sources" might suggest that a child is at risk of sexual exploitation.

But where are the numbers from? Are the statistics "sensationalised"?

In order to identify those children at "high risk" of sexual exploitation, the Children's Commission collected data over a 14 month period from police constabularies, local authority children's services and Primary Care Trusts (PCTs). For instance, a Young Offender's Team would be able to provide information on local children who've been found guilty of offending (one of the "warning signs"); a PCT would be able to assess how many children might be abusing drugs in a particular area.

The Children's Commission requested "child-level" data (a child's initials and date of birth) from these bodies, where it might be available. In order to minimise double counting, the researchers assigned a unique code to each child record. To supplement this individual data, they also used "aggregated" data that provides information on how many children have hit a particular indicator of risk.

They concluded that between August 2010 and October 2011, there were 16,500 children "at high risk" of sexual exploitation. However, there were problems with sourcing this data, as the report acknowledges.

While 100% of police constabularies responded to the request for data, there was variation in how much detail their data offered. Although 88% of local authority children's services provided data, only 2/3 of PCTs submitted evidence.

Furthermore, in one of the report's footnotes, we find another caveat that applies particularly to Young Offender Teams: where data had to be extracted from a manual trawl, the Children's Commission only requested 4 months of data "in order to reduce the administrative burden". So for a period of 14 months, it looks like we have 4 months of data at most.

Is the Government's analysis unfair?

Today's PM programme on Radio 4 confirmed the Government's use of "hysterical" wasn't on the record, but we still don't know which particular statistics the Government has taken issue with.

In this report, the Children's Commissioner has analysed data from a range of different sources. She openly admits that there are "gaps" and "inconsistencies" in the capture and logging of data, as well as "varying definitions".

It's also worth nothing that many of the indicators of "risk" will rely on somebody's subjective judgement. As John Humphrys notes, many of these indicators are not clear-cut: they do not necessarily point to a child's sexual exploitation. We're not talking about something that is easy to measure and any statistic will probably be an approximation. 

However, until the Government explains its misgivings, it is unclear why the report was initially condemned in such strong terms.

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