It’s the morning after the first person convicted under Operation Dash – an investigation launched last year to root out child sexual exploitation in the Strathclyde area – has been imprisoned. Javaid Akhond was sentenced to six years at the High Court in Glasgow after being found guilty of rape and sex abuse charges involving girls as young as 12. “It’s no longer just acceptable for all of the agencies working in this area to keep talking about what the barriers are,” Police Scotland Assistant Chief Constable Malcolm Graham tells Holyrood. “What we need to be doing is coming up with new and innovative ways of working to ensure that those barriers are broken down or the likelihood of them presenting as barriers is reduced.”
Details of Operation Dash – a multi-agency effort led by Police Scotland following conclusion of another known as Operation Cotswold – remain sparse given this is a live ongoing criminal investigation. Lessons to emerge from both are clear, however, says Graham. Attention has to be focused on targeting perpetrators “as opposed to exclusively focusing our attention on identifying and ensuring that we can get an account from a victim, because we know that there are a number of challenges as to why that might not be the best route into a court case”. Equally crucial, though, information must flow freely within the child protection sphere, including that held by non-statutory services, which are often closer to children at risk and more likely to be trusted with the private and important information they hold.
“At the moment the child protection system is set up around that information being received by one of the statutory agencies, whether it is the police, whether it is the local authority in various guises, or whether it is the health board,” adds Graham. “I think we need to expand that out to other people who are working more closely day-to-day with children and young people.” Pockets of good work already exist – the single service has worked closely with Barnardo’s Scotland as part of Operation Dash, for instance – though the picture is inconsistent.
“The honest position is that, certainly in terms of voluntary sector provision, it’s very patchy,” says Barnardo’s director, Martin Crewe. “We’re not looking to be the exclusive agency providing all CSE services across Scotland, far from it. But the number of specialist services is very few and far between.” The children’s charity has piloted specific training for practitioners in the west of Scotland based on guidance developed earlier this year in respect of CSE. “All of the areas across Scotland have been watching closely to see what’s involved and they’re all really keen that it should be available to them as well,” says Catriona Laird, national child protection committee (CPC) coordinator. “They were hoping for funding from the Scottish Government to enable that to happen.”
Laird, who is based at WithScotland, a national resource for child protection, last month completed a mapping exercise of CSE resources and services nationwide. “What comes across clearly is the amount of work that is being done with young people directly in all areas, through schools, through youth workers, through a whole host of different initiatives,” she says. Further areas of work are identified, though, including a need to address inconsistencies across Scotland’s suite of CPCs in assessment of risk and vulnerability as well as support offered to young people. Further work is also required with looked after and accommodated children, who are consistently identified as more vulnerable.
Crewe suggests “resistance from some CPCs to see child sexual exploitation as a very high priority issue has shifted” amid a recognition that seeing it as such does not detract from other forms of child abuse. However, moves to involve the third sector can still be “a bit of an afterthought”, he claims. A need to reach out to the voluntary sector has been recognised in terms of training, though a “mature discussion” among agencies on who should do what in terms of direct service delivery is still needed, Crewe adds.
One of the common threads to emerge throughout several documented cases is a lack of recognition by victims that they are being exploited. “We have got some experience of working very well in different local communities, but I would like to see there being a greater focus on a national emphasis towards this through schools and education and we are in discussions with the government about how we can contribute to that,” says Graham. That wouldn’t necessarily mean police officers going into all schools, he cautions, with teachers often better placed to do that work.
“There needs to be an assessment of at what age and stage would this be appropriate as well,” he adds. “We do have some evidence that those who are being victimised have got younger – we need to respond to that as well. This is perhaps something – given the exposure to digital technology and the way in which young people live their lives through online means – [where] we need to start looking at some of that education and support coming in at a stage that that’s happening. My experience of that is that that’s happening before kids get to secondary school.”
Graham, who leads on major crime and public protection, is keen to underline that the solution is not solely to identify victims, but rather to prevent abuse from happening in the first place. That, he suggests, also requires a more hands-on approach from those providing the medium through which young people are often targeted. “We need to do more to look at how we can develop the internet to improve the security and safety of those who are using it and I think that that responsibility should also be firmly placed on the commercial entities that are profiting from the internet, so internet service providers and the various companies that run the main social media and other digital platforms that young people persistently use and that is increasingly changing.”
Internet regulation is reserved to Westminster but Scotland “needs to be a part of influencing” how that is taken forward. “When we’re talking about digital images or videos being streamed then there are means of identifying that technically that we haven’t yet developed as far as we could and there are a whole lot of methodologies and tactics that the police should be using, in conjunction with and through the cooperation of some of these organisations, that they should be required to provide that would allow us the best means of protecting young people.” Graham cites the example of indecent images, which technically are easy to identify and remove yet prove more difficult to do in practice, as he raises the prospect of legislative and regulatory changes to ensure it happens.
A National Action Plan on CSE is expected imminently after being sent to ministers recently. Meanwhile, professionals in child protection will sit down with Professor Alexis Jay, author of the Rotherham inquiry, at Tulliallan on 6 November to assess the implications of her work for Scotland. And a detective superintendent, supported by a detective chief inspector, has already been appointed ahead of a National Child Abuse Investigation Unit within Police Scotland going live later this year. Part of that will have to involve a greater focus on targeting perpetrators, argues Crewe.
“Although there aren’t very strong connections in terms of some of the operations in Glasgow, it is very useful to have a common understanding of which of the areas tend to be problematic, who are the people, who are the adults who we’re concerned about,” he says. “We have worked very closely with the police and that’s one of the things that we’re talking to them more about in terms of, could we have more of a coordinated approach across Scotland to look at how we map CSE within areas so that rather than saying we don’t know much about the prevalence and patterns of CSE, that we actually start getting some real evidence so that we do know about it.”