From the narrative of failure to the narrative of potential?


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David Berridge, Professor of Child and Family Welfare at the School for Policy Studies, considers the process of making an impact on policy and practice by discussing his research on looked after children. 

It is interesting, and advisable, at the completion of a research project to reflect on how it went.  There can be a tendency to delay this process, encouraged by feelings of relief as well as no doubt the need to catch-up with other responsibilities that are now overdue.

These thoughts were with me at the end of 2015 on the conclusion of our joint-research with the Rees Centre, University of Oxford, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, on the Educational Progress of Looked After Children in England.  We were certainly pleased to complete what for us was a major piece of work. There were many challenges in the work (to borrow a well-used euphemism), including: obtaining and analysing large government databases; negotiating access to six contrasting local authorities; contacting groups of older teenagers in care, their social workers, carers and teachers; obtaining and analysis large amounts of qualitative data; and writing-up the results.

Social researchers are familiar with these processes, with varying degrees of success. But we also give particular attention to the dissemination of research and trying to ensure that it impacts on the worlds of policy and practice.  These stages need proper planning throughout the research process, not just at the end.

We were certainly pleased with our research results, which we feel contain important, new messages.  Comparing large groups of children in care who took their GCSEs in 2013 with ‘children in need’ (receiving social work support at home) and the wider pupil population, we found that, once controlling for a wide variety of factors, those in care (particularly foster care) made greater educational progress than did children in need.  This is despite, one would assume, having less acute problems.  Generally, therefore, the care system appears to operate as an educational protective factor.

This is a new message as commentators in the past have generally focused on the often disappointing attainments of young people in care (exam/test results etc), rather than their educational progress after becoming looked after – an important distinction. Indeed, there was an overwhelming view from the young people interviewed that leaving home and entering care had benefited them educationally. Furthermore, it was mainly late adolescent entrants to care who experienced particular educational problems.  Clearly, we should not overlook that high attainment is important and our research is intended to contribute to this by a detailed examination of the nature of the problem and its causes.

Other important findings include that children’s emotional and behavioural problems often underlie educational difficulties.  Taking into account pupil variation and school effectiveness, there was little difference between Councils in the educational progress of children in care.  Responses of school and care systems were important, including the level of stability provided.  Nonetheless, this questions aspects of a ‘league table’ approach and of the OFSTED inspection framework.  Other results are available on the website, including the individual technical reports.

We were grateful that the Minister for Children and Families, Ed Timpson MP, spoke at our launch event at the Nuffield Foundation.  He concluded his speech by repeating the statement made by Robbie Gilligan earlier in the day, that we need to move ‘…from the narrative of failure to the narrative of potential’.  This is an important observation and it is interesting to reflect on what it means and its implications. The statement is ambiguous. On the one hand it could be referring to the fact that we should not label individual children in care as unintelligent or incapable, as their school performance has been hampered by their social and emotional development and poor parenting.  On the other, the ‘narrative of potential’ comment could denote the need to recognise that the care and school systems makes positive progress with these disadvantaged pupils, especially when there it a reasonable period of time for there to be an effect. The statement could have both micro and macro meanings; although for me ‘narrative’ usually has broad application.

In his autumn 2015 Conservative Party conference speech the Prime Minister referred to the poor outcomes for children in care: ‘These children are in our care; we, the state, are their parents – and what are we setting them up for…the dole, the streets, an early grave?  I tell you: this shames our country and we will put it right’.

A fortnight after the launch of our research the Prime Minister announced further proposals to take over failing local authority children’s services: reported to be as transformative a policy as the Academisation programme in the last Parliament.  It is unclear if children’s services’ failures relate specifically to child protection and child tragedies, to poor outcomes for children in care, or to both.  The Prime Minister’s conference speech located it in a section on entrenched family poverty.

Reform of children’s services, therefore, is signalled as a flagship policy for this Conservative administration.  We hope that our research findings, and other sources of evidence, are allowed to contribute to this debate: to help pinpoint the exact nature of child welfare problems, their complexity and the effectiveness of responses. It will be interesting to see if a narrative of potential or a narrative of failure will be maintained 2016.

 

Can after-school dance increase physical activity levels in adolescent girls?

Russ Jago, Professor of Paediatric Physical Activity & Public Health, reports some surprising findings from research conducted at the Centre for Exercise, Nutrition, and Health.

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Adolescent girls who attend after-school dance classes are no more likely to be physically active than those who don’t. This is one of the key findings from Active 7, a research project that aims to find out whether after-school dance sessions can help adolescent girls to engage in moderate levels of exercise.

Physical activity is associated with improved physical and mental health, but many adolescents – and particularly adolescent girls – do not engage in recommended levels of physical activity.  A team, led by staff in the Centre for Exercise, Health and Nutrition at the School for Policy Studies aimed to address this issue by examining whether providing dance programmes at secondary schools led to increases in girls’ physical activity. The study took place in 18 secondary schools. In half of the schools, Year 7 girls were provided with a new after-school dance programme for 20 weeks. Girls in the other “control” schools carried on as normal.

The results were surprising.  Much academic research suggests dance is an appealing form of physical activity amongst teenage girls, that extra-curricular periods are better suited to delivering physical activity interventions, and that interventions based on psychological theory (as Active7 was) have more success than non-theory based interventions. However, we found no difference between the physical activity levels of the intervention and control group girls at the end of the programme, or 6-months later. We also found that only a third of girls attended at least two thirds of the sessions provided in their school.

Our earlier work had suggested that girls enjoy dance and as such the lack of a difference in the physical activity levels of the girls was surprising. This could be due to the intensity of the dance sessions. The goal of the project was to increase ‘moderate to vigorous physical activity’ (MVPA), which gets you sweaty and slightly out of breath. The results found that girls who attended Active7 only took part in 4.7 more minutes of MVPA on session days, and therefore the sessions may not have been intensive enough to impact on MVPA.  Only one-third of the girls met the attendance criteria of attending two-thirds of the sessions, suggesting there may be a need to consider alternative forms of physical activity. A final and third explanation is methodological; accelerometers may not be able to capture the nuanced movements inherent in dance, especially when preparing for performances. Thus, levels of MVPA in sessions may have been underrepresented.

The results have implications for how we think about delivering after-school physical activity interventions. We might need to move beyond delivering standardised forms of extra-curricular physical activity and instead find more novel forms of exercise that offer lots of different types of physical activity. Fortunately, the findings from Active7 provide us with new ways of thinking about designing interventions. Offering participants with sufficient ‘choice’ in the design of the intervention is one potential method uncovered in our analysis, whilst delivering tailored interventions that meet a diversity of schools was also suggested as a future recommendation from girls and school contacts. Thus, future research which examines how to engage girls in activity and focusses on the types of activities that they would like to attend, when they would like to attend and how to maximise physical activity during those sessions, is needed.

The project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Public Health Research (NIHR PHR) Programme (project number 11/3050/01). The views and opinions expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NIHR PHR Programme or the Department of Health.

This blog post is based on Jago et al 2015: Effect and cost of an after-school dance programme on the physical activity of Year 7 girls: The Bristol Girls Dance Project, a school-based cluster randomised controlled trial, International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition & Physical Activity, 12:128, 2015

 

Bridge Learning Campus visit to ENHS

Mark EdwardsRecently a group of Year 8 students from Bridge Learning Campus spent the day with staff in the centre for Exercise, Nutrition, and Health Sciences. Two of the girls (Amy Manning and Jess Martin) were winner and runner-up respectively of the Bristol Bright Night (Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds) award. As part of their prize Mark Edwards (ENHS) and Chloe Anderson (Centre for Public Engagement) arranged for the girls to visit the health-focused Centre. Mark reflects here on the fun and insightful day that ENHS spent with the girls.

Five girls, accompanied by their Science teacher, Ms Williams, spent the day learning about the research we do and gave us some great insights into the barriers they face to being physically active. Almost all of our work into physical activity is assessed by accelerometers (which give a sophisticated measure of physical activity). Byron Tibbitts from ENHS offered a tour de force of the little red device we use to measure activity. In true Blue Peter fashion, the girls made a rudimentary accelerometer and then did their own mini controlled trial with the real things! The girls not only conducted the experiment with Byron, but then went on to analyse and interpret the data too.

Next up, Emma Solomon, Bex Newell and Rosina Cross (the B-Proac1v team) taught the girls all about blood pressure (a measure used in the BHF-funded study into young children’s physical activity). The girls confirmed our hypotheses that music and physical activity both affect blood pressure levels.

Finally, Kate Banfield built on the work we do in our FAB Kids outreach project to discuss sugar content in drinks. In an illuminating study, the girls were genuinely shocked to see the amount of sugar in drinks commonly consumed by people their age.diagram

After a great lunch in the Refectory we headed back to have a roundtable discussion on the barriers girls face to being physically active. The declining physical activity levels of female adolescents is a real public health concern (and the focus of the Acitve7 and PLAN-A studies), so this gave staff in ENHS a great opportunity to hear about the issues girls face. Mark Edwards and Sarah Harding led the discussion and were hugely impressed with the candid and insightful observations the girls made.

The final part of the day was always going to be the most nerve racking for the girls. But they excelled. Speaking to a room packed full of academics – scary for even a seasoned prof! – the girls gave a brief presentation on what they learnt throughout the day, with a wonderful practical example of how accelerometers work. The girls then spoke about the barriers they face to being active and presented some possible solutions for getting around them. The key messages we heard were that physical activities need to be FUN! There also needs to be the opportunity for girls-only activity, a chance to try new activities in a welcoming arena, and girls want to dress in whatever they feel comfortable. In making our research effective and getting it to truly speak to the people it is aimed at, it is vital we hear the voices of the girls.

It was a pleasure having the Bridge Learning Campus girls and Ms Williams come in – the girls did themselves, their teachers, and the school proud. We hope that they not only learnt some interesting things about physical activity but also had a good deal of fun too. None of the girls knew anybody who had been to university, and none of them had ever visited a university before. We hope to have inspired them to consider university as a viable option for them when they begin thinking about their future beyond secondary school.DSC_0290

Due to the success of the day, we hope to team up with the Centre for Public Engagement to make this an annual event.

Keeping children in care out of trouble

Dr Jo Staines outlines the Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies’ involvement in ‘Keeping children in care out of trouble’, an independent review of looked after children in the criminal justice system.

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Some statistics that cause concern: only 3% of children in the community offend in any one year, yet over twice this number of looked after children do so (7.9%, Department for Education, 2011a). Furthermore, despite less than 1% of the UK’s child population being in care (looked after by local authorities), almost 50% of the children in custody are, or have been in care. And, while girls constitute only 5% of the youth justice secure population, 61% are, or have been, in care compared with 33% of boys (Prison Reform Trust 2014).

Along with professional associations, service user groups, academics and practitioners working across the care and youth justice systems in England and Wales, we have been invited to join the Prison Reform Trust’s recently established review of looked after children in the criminal justice system.

We have nine months to explore the intersection of the care and youth justice systems, and how involvement in one correlates with involvement in the other. This will encompass a broad range of care settings, from foster care to local authority residential care and private care settings. To do this we will synthesise and analyse existing research, both national and international; identify current good practice and local protocols; and seek the views of children and young people, their families, foster carers and residential staff about their experiences of both care and justice.

From this evidence base, the review will develop recommendations for national policy and practice and, importantly, an implementation strategy to ensure that the findings of what promises to be a significant review are widely disseminated and embedded within practice.

The State has a legal and moral duty of care to these looked after children, but it is clear that their needs are not always met nor their rights upheld.  This duty of care continues until the young person reaches the age of 21 but many looked after children move into independent or semi-independent care much earlier, and may be at a heightened risk of becoming involved in offending behaviour during this period of transition to adulthood.

Understanding the relationship between care and youth offending is complex: many of the risk factors for involvement in offending behaviour are the same as those that precipitate entry into the care system, such as the experience of abuse, neglect or violence, family instability and poor parenting, disadvantage and deprivation.

However, research also indicates that becoming looked after can both reduce and increase the likelihood of being involved in offending behaviour – the former through providing high-quality, stable placements that promote children and young people’s resilience (Schofield et al, 2012), the latter through looked after children being inappropriately drawn into the youth justice system through processes that may ultimately label and criminalise them for what, in other situations, would be considered ‘normal’ teenage rebellion.  Practitioners are able to cite many examples where looked after children have caused damage to their foster or residential home, or their carers’ property, and have been charged with criminal damage or other offences – action unlikely to be taken by parents against children in their own families (Schofield et al 2014).

Rates of recidivism (repeat offending) for children and young people, particularly post-custody, are high, suggesting that involvement in the justice system itself can exacerbate, or at least fail to address, the difficulties and disadvantage that these children experience.  The need to alternative ways of responding to children who offend is clear and the review will also consider how approaches such as early intervention and restorative justice can be used with looked after children to limit their involvement in offending behaviour.

The key challenges facing the review include maintaining a sharp focus within the intricacies of the two systems, both of which operate within complex and changing legislative frameworks.  Both are bound by the welfare principle embedded within the Children Act 1989 and are guided by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, but other aspects of welfare and justice legislation may, at least at a surface level, appear to be contradictory and to have competing aims.  Tensions exist between promoting the welfare of the child and upholding principles of justice, victims’ rights and public safety, but it is imperative that we find a way to realise this balance both in policy and in practice.

References:

Department for Education (2011a) Outcomes for children looked after by local authorities in England year ending March 2011

Department for Education (2011b) Children looked after by local authorities in England year ending March 2011

Prison Reform Trust (2014) Bromley Briefings Summer 2014, London: PRT

Schofield G, Biggart L, Ward E, Scaife V, Dodsworth J, Haynes A and Larsson B (2014) Looked after children and offending: Reducing risk and promoting resilience, London: BAAF

Jo Staines is a Senior Lecturer and Director of the BSc Childhood Studies programmes and a member of the Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies in the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol.    She is a member of the Prison Reform Trust’s independent review of looked after children in the criminal justice system, and author of ‘Youth Justice’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

How rethinking residential care can help safeguard children against sexual exploitation

In light of how vulnerable looked-after children are to abusers, it’s time to rethink our approach to residential care, argue Tom Rahilly and David Berridge

Tom Rahilly is Head of Strategy and Development, NSPCC, and David Berridge is Professor of Child and Family Welfare, University of Bristol

Not that it has ever gone away, but the government’s recent intervention in Rotherham council brought back into the public eye the horrendous events in which a reported 1,400 children were sexually exploited. The serious case review into sexual exploitation in Oxfordshire shows the problem is not restricted to one area alone. Alexis Jay’s report into Rotherham showed widespread failures. While there were many individual practitioners trying their best, they came up against a wall of denial.

It’s clear that we urgently need to find a better way of safeguarding our most vulnerable children. Children who were abused included those living at home with their families as well as children in care. However, there seems to be a pattern in abusers targeting those who are particularly vulnerable such as in residential care.

Challenge

No-one should under-estimate the challenge of tackling this. Children may yearn for adult affection and be less adept at recognising true motives and exploitation. Numerous girls made comments such as, ‘I know he really loves me’, or, ‘I was special to him’. It is harrowing when individuals will settle for so little, or feel that they are entitled to no better.

Residential care is often misunderstood and most homes work hard to provide stability and boundaries for young people who have led unsettled and troublesome lives. Children arrive with established harmful patterns of behaviour and undesirable contacts. Dealing with this in local, open units is a challenge and residential workers have to be very creative in gathering intelligence, fragmenting social groups and offering alternatives.

Under-professionalised

Despite these efforts, it is clear that there are long-term and structural problems with residential care in England. These relate to role and status. We still expect our most troubled children to be looked after by an undervalued workforce that is the least well qualified, lowest paid and not given the support it needs. In other words a workforce that is ‘under-professionalised’. It doesn’t need to be this way. It is different to this in much of continental Europe.

The government has taken action to address some of the shortcomings. Attention has focused on children placed long distances and the problem of residential homes located in unsafe areas.

There has been a debate about responses to children who go missing. A new set of quality standards is planned. And whilst we need to go further, useful steps have been taken to tighten-up qualifications for the residential sector. This is a reasonable start but, alone, none of this will resolve current problems.

Rethink the nature of residential care

We need to develop a more nuanced, and individual approach to safeguarding children in care; a relational approach. Research shows that it is the relationship that children have with the carer and other professionals that is critical to effective safeguarding. Children need someone they trust; someone that they turn to for support. Alongside improving qualifications – which is critical – we must focus on supporting the quality and stability of the relationships that young people in care have with those there to support and protect them.

Achieving this requires us to rethink the nature of residential care. We must ensure the management of residential care build a positive culture in the home where children and young people know that their needs are understood and that their views and experiences are valued and listened to. We must, for example, eliminate inflexible shift patterns and ways of working that mean that children cannot develop meaningful, trusting relationships over the longer term.

Residential children’s homes as anomalies

Though it may never be the same, residential care should resemble family care as closely as possible.

Most human service professions are now graduate entry: children’s residential homes are, therefore, anomalous. Some councils pay and perceive heads of homes at social worker team leader-level, which seems more commensurate with the level of responsibility and expertise required, but practice remains variable. We are now dependent on a large independent residential sector and the economics of care are a problem.

Hopefully the next government will continue to develop the children’s residential sector, building on the work that has started and based on what we know works. How all this squares with a five-year, average, reduction in council budgets of 37% remains to be seen.

But as the messages from Rotherham and elsewhere have shown us, we cannot afford not to act.

This piece is based on chapter three from the NSPCC’s book, ‘Promoting the wellbeing of children in care’, which was launched om 6/3/15.

This piece was first published on communitycare.co.uk

From Bristol City to Mexico City: New challenges for obesity research

In this blog, Simon Sebire from the Centre for Exercise, Nutrition & Health Sciences and three PhD students reflect on new avenues of research into childhood physical activity and obesity in Low and Middle Income Countries and the opportunities and challenges this work presents.

New ideas emerge in the least likely places. As I listened to Professor Andy Gouldson present his research to the School for Policy Studies in spring 2014, I was inspired to sketch connections between some of Andy’s concepts (economic development and environmental issues) and my own (the psychology of motivating people to adopt healthy behaviours like being physically active). After the talk, I shared my scribbles with my colleague Prof. Russ Jago, only to find that he had an almost identical set.

Our thoughts had independently been transported from Bristol to Mexico and musings about the potential associations of urban development and rural-urban migration on the lifestyle behaviours of children and their families. This international perspective is not something either of us had previously pursued is but clearly had prompted some scribbling! The Mexico connection was inspired by three CONACyT-funded students, from Mexico, who at the time were studying our MSc in Nutrition, Physical Activity and Public Health and were considering PhDs.

Nearly 1 year on the three students (Ana Ortega Avila, Maria Hermosillo Gallardo and Nadia Rodriguez Ceron) are now PhD students in the School for Policy Studies Centre for Exercise, Nutrition and Health Sciences supervised by Prof. Russ Jago, Dr Angeliki Papadaki and I. They secured further funding from CONACyT to pursue their programme of research to study how various social, psychological and environmental factors might be related to physical activity and nutrition behaviours in children adolescents and their families in Mexico.

The causes of and response to increasing levels of obesity in low and middle income countries have been the focus of a recent Guardian Global Development Podcast. The podcast draws on the experiences of children, families, health practitioners and campaigners from South Africa and Mexico. In Mexico 73% of men, 69% of women and approximately 35% of adolescents are obese or overweight which is higher than in the USA. It is clear that there is much to be done to both treat those who are already overweight and prevent the development of obesity in young people. However, extrapolating our existing research and knowledge of what we think drives obesogenic behaviours in places like Bristol to the context of people’s lives in Mexico presents a number of challenges.

Ana, Maria and Nadia have a wealth of experience from previously working in Mexico as nutritionists or within the food industry, so I asked them to listen to the podcast and share their insider’s view of the challenges ahead:

Maria referred to the potentially damaging effects of families in Mexico aspiring to an American lifestyle dominated by unhealthy foods and sedentary behaviour:

The blog says that processed foods and junk food are one of the main causes of overweight and obesity increasing in Mexico, which is partially true, but I think it has to do a little bit more with what I call “junk behaviours”. For example, how mums from rural areas prefer to give their children processed foods instead of home-made meals because they heard somewhere that people from USA consumed them, and because Americans always choose right (at least that’s the belief in some parts of Mexico); junk food and processed foods are the way to go for feeding their children.

Ana suggested that this influence may be strongest in regions closest to America and highlighted the broader problems associated with researching an issue which is geographically diverse:

Mexico is among the largest countries in the world geographically and demographically (118 million people); where differences in dietary pattern exist between rural and urban areas or between north, central and south regions.I have always lived in the northwest and the influence of the U.S.A. is visible in a lot of aspects in our life compared to the centre or south of the country. Our dietary patterns are based on American food choices and less on the Mexican traditional diet.

Ana, Maria and Nadia all added that the potential mismatch between perceptions of wealth and health may be making being overweight an aspiration:

Ana: In my experience as a nutritionist there are a number of cultural misconceptions among population when it comes to healthy nutrition. For example, being a little overweight still means you are healthy and well-nourished whereas being thin means you are unhealthy or sick. People don’t see overweight as a problem, on the contrary, they see it as something normal.

Nadia suggested that such perceptions may prevent parents from identifying obesity as a potential health problem in their children:

I think the healthy body image is distorted as family, friends or in the streets, the most common thing is to see someone obese; and that is really concerning because how will they do something to improve their health if they don’t even think there’s a problem. 

Ana, Maria and Nadia reflected on the challenges of applying our physical activity and nutrition research findings which are largely based on evidence from developed countries such as the UK or USA to the context of middle income countries such as Mexico. A good example is parents’ perceptions of safety when letting their children play outside of the home. In UK research, including some in Bristol by my ENHS colleagues, we tend to focus attention on the presence of traffic or children’s risk of injury while unsupervised. In contrast, perceptions of safety in Mexico are measured nationally with questions including those related to the risk of kidnap, existence of violent gangs in the neighbourhood, armed robbery and frequency of firearms shootings. 73.3% of the participants in the 2014 National Survey on Victimization and Perception of Public Safety (ENVIPE) in Mexico reported not feeling safe in their local areas. In addition to the safety implications of conducting research in this context, it is clear that current measures of parents’ perceptions of their child’s safety to be active outside the home will not be sufficient and Nadia has plans to develop a new tool.

In addition, the political landscape challenges us to consider different ways in which our research may be best able to impact on health policy:

Ana: The political context in Mexico is complex, the government is dealing with high levels of insecurity and corruption, events that prevent the government from focusing on other matters such as the implementation of new health policies.

Maria believes that more is needed to be done to educate policy makers in addition to the public: There is a huge educational barrier, both governmental and individual, which makes difficult to take seriously the obesity and overweight problem.

Nadia: All those factors are completely different to high-income countries, and makes the context a complex matter to understand when almost all the research has developed in a completely different contexts with a wider range of opportunities to change or create policies that have a real impact in the population’s health. 

In summary, over the last year or so, I have been transported from Bristol city to Mexico City thanks to a fortuitous combination of research daydreaming and inspiring MSc (now PhD) students.  As a supervisor, my initial conversations with our new students has forced me out of my research comfort zone, an experience which has been echoed and reported by researchers in the International Physical Activity and the Environment Network in Latin America. Undoubtedly, our success in co-producing research which could have international impact will require us to work together to combine our collective knowledge to understand the context and key drivers of obesity-related behaviour change in Mexico.

Thanks to Ana Avila Ortega, Maria Hermosillo Gallardo and Nadia Rodriguez Ceron for their contributions.

  • Ana’s PhD focusses on the development of a social media intervention to reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in  Mexican older adolescents
  • Maria is studying the associations between urbanicity in Mexico and lifestyle behaviours and the influence of the rural urban transition on family health.
  • Nadia’s PhD focusses on the environmental and social correlates of physical activity in children in Mexico City.

Dr Simon Sebire is Lecturer in Physical Activity & Exercise Psychology in the Centre for Exercise, Nutrition & Health Sciences (ENHS) in the School for Policy Studies.The results of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) confirm the Centre’s international reputation for research excellence within the field of physical activity, nutrition and health. ENHS was rated 1st overall in the UK.

 

Emma Williamson, Senior Research Fellow in the School for Policy Studies, discusses gendered violence

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People around the World are currently engaged in 16 days of activism against gendered violence.  Communities across different nations are challenging the inequality which some men interpret as an excuse to violate and oppress those, predominately women and children, who are more vulnerable than themselves.

This image is being used with permission from J.Fleming

This is a global phenomenon which has landed in the middle of our city of Bristol. I drove past the Premier Inn on my way to work this morning.  The same hotel where last week it was revealed that a young, vulnerable, girl of 13 had been raped and sexually abused by a group of men who had been grooming her for sexual exploitation.  That building used to house Bristol Social Services.

It is possible that I have met this young woman, or someone like her, during the course of our research on the needs of homeless women or in the recent evaluation of a nearby Child Sexual Exploitation project.

She could be Jasmine, not her real name, who we first met when she was 19.

But when I got kicked out the last time, that was the only person who I could go to … but he’s on like a paedophile thing, he’s on the sex offenders for life … and he’s just not right in the head. […] Not … he never done nothing to me … or that I know about … cos he could have done it when I was asleep … but I never felt safe there. It was just horrible. (Jasmine, age 19)

When we spoke to her again, she told us

When I think back to that I do get very paranoid thinking he might have put stuff in my drink and … cos I just would not put it past him.  And … but I try not to think of it, cos I’d never find out now. (Jasmine, age 19)

When Jasmine told us about this she did so with a resignation and matter of fact honesty.  She genuinely does not know, on that occasion, if she was sexually assaulted or not.  The rest of Jasmine’s story has an inevitability about it, for example she told us about both her current and ex- ‘boyfriend’:

One time my ex-boyfriend, he hit me before … this was like proper punches to the head … never got the police involved when I should have.  But this one’s a bit different – although he’s physical, he’s like in your head.  That’s what he’s more like – he tries brainwashing you. (Jasmine, age 19)

And about how she coped with alcohol and drugs:

I know it sounds stupid, but I was just thinking a bit religiously and thinking it’s not natural, this is not what God like wanted you to do – take drugs and drink all the time. There’s got to be more to life than that (Jasmine, age 19).

Speaking with older homeless women, the vast majority of whom had experienced domestic or sexual violence throughout their lives and used alcohol and drugs as a coping strategy, demonstrates how the abuse of vulnerable girls and women continues overtime with immeasurable personal costs.

Blossom was 52 when we spoke to her:

[…] this person I’d known from last year, […] he harassed me going along the road, he wouldn’t leave me alone … he said “I need to talk to you” … and the outcome was I was assaulted […] And you see the thing is I knew him when I had nowhere to live, and I stayed there for a night.  And people don’t realise how vulnerable you are when you have nowhere to go. […] you’re vulnerable to all sorts of people.  And believe me I’ve met people that are not nice, and they take advantage of the situation. (Blossom, age 52)

Or Daisy and Ginger who spoke to us about staying in a mixed homeless hostel:

[…] the mixed [shelter], it ain’t safe in there because being women, sometimes I’d get a lot of attention from men, you know?  […] you don’t like waking up in the night getting touched or things going that shouldn’t be going on, you know what I mean?   (Daisy, age 30)

Yeah it’s mostly men, there’s only four women there.  It can be a bit agitating, cos the men there think they can just grab you when they’re drunk and do what they like, you know, but they can’t really can they? (Ginger, age 49)

The Bristol case yet again highlights the abuse and exploitation of vulnerable girls but it also challenges us all, as a society to reconsider how we respond to victims and how we all contribute to the reality in which abusive behaviours, across the continuum from wolf whistling to rape, are experienced and understood.

Whilst the media is rightly abhorred by the rape and sexual exploitation of young vulnerable girls, it doesn’t ask about the wider dynamics of gender and power which contribute to such abuse taking place.  When exploited girls talk about perpetrators as their ‘boyfriends’ it is in a context where society teaches young women to judge their self-worth on the basis of women’s objectification in the eyes of men.  Where they are bombarded by objectifying images on a daily basis in our newspapers, on TV, and on the cover of magazines.  Where senior executives from one of our national TV stations think it is ok to represent the harassment and abuse of women as tongue in cheek comedy entertainment.

In Bristol we have a council that sanctions licenses for sexual entertainment venues – whilst simultaneously seeking to educate young people in the city about respectful relationships. What we need to realise is that the violence and abuse experienced by women and children is inextricably linked to gender and inequality.  If we fail to challenge the latter, we fail to address the root causes of abuse and let victims and survivors down.

Dr Emma Williamson

Anyone who wishes to donate to a local Bristol charity which works with vulnerable women in relation to sexual exploitation might wish to donate to:

http://one25.org.uk/

http://www.sarsas.org.uk/

 

Understanding Gender Based Violence within national and international contexts

GG NANadia Aghtaie and Geetanjali Gangoli from the Centre for Gender and Violence Research in the School for Policy Studies introduce their new book

The endemic, universal and multifaceted nature of gender based violence is what drives the work of the Centre for Gender and Violence Research (CGVR), at the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol. Through our recent book (Aghtaie, N. and Gangoli, G. eds (2014) Understanding Gender Based Violence. National and international contexts. Routledge), we aim not only to contribute to scholarly debates on gender and violence,  but also to showcase some of the pioneering and original research conducted by members of the CGVR.  All the chapters in this book have contributions from current and former members of staff or post graduate research students attached to the CGVR.

While the Centre was formally created in 2009, members of the Centre have a long history of researching gender based violence at a local, national and international level, and feeding this into policy and practice. The CGVR grew organically from the Violence Against Women Research Group (2003) that emerged from the Domestic Violence Research Group (1990).All the members of the CGVR identify as feminist, and have a personal passion to end GBV, and our research has always originated from this desire.018

The CGVR works on all forms of GBV and interventions challenging it, and explores how violence, gender and power operate within intimate partner, interpersonal and structural violence, for example in the context of domestic abuse, prostitution and trafficking for sexual exploitation of women and girls, rape and sexual violence, domestic violence and disabled women and gender based violence for BME communities, young people’s experiences of intimate partner violence, online and offline,  same sex domestic violence and abuse, and international and comparative research on gender based violence, in a variety of contexts.

Based on the varied research conducted by members of the CGVR, the book aims to highlight the continuing, pervasive and varied nature of gender based violence in a range of countries and contexts, such as the UK, India, Iran, Rwanda and China. The chapters in the book focus on the importance of context and structure both nationally and internally The book both builds on, and expands on existing research, theories and methodologies on the issue; as well as, enters into some under researched geographical areas; and issues, such as children’s and young people’s experiences and attitudes to gender based violence and disability and domestic violence.

The book gives a taste of the many projects, studies, international reach and contributions to theories and practice of the CGVR. The Centre is now one of the largest research centre on gender based violence in Europe. Ultimately we believe and hope that the work done by the Centre does and will contribute to a more egalitarian society, where women, men and children, are free of the pressures to ‘do gender’ and are free of violence and abuse. This is, in our view, the core of feminist research.

The book will be launched on the 3rd December 2014 at the Common Room, 8 Priory Road, Bristol.  All welcome – book here!

 

Child Sexual Exploitation: Groundhog day

Emma Williamson and Natasha Mulvihill, Centre for Gender and Violence Research

The report into the abuse and sexual exploitation of children and young people in Rotherham[i] whilst shocking, is not a surprise. The report comes in a long line of reports, inquiries, research, and reviews which are consistent in their findings. That victims have been ignored or not believed; that busy professionals have been unable (for a variety of reasons) to respond appropriately; that officials have not adequately prioritised the work of those on the front line; and that existing legislation is not being used even in cases where it could be, to tackle the sexual exploitation of children and young people.

As British actor Samantha Morton made clear in her recent interview, every incident of child sexual abuse is a life sentence for that individual, their families, and those around them.

As calls for yet another inquiry are made, maybe this is the time to take a different approach. A recent Parliamentary Select Committee Report, published in April 2014, concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that in terms of child sexual exploitation “justice cannot currently be served due to the lack of a specific offence”. The recommendation of this report was that “existing offences could be used more effectively”.  Sheila Taylor, CEO of NWG Network, in recent news interviews and her own press release, highlighted how their organisation had compiled the recommendations from 16 recent relevant reports which resulted in up to 400 recommendations. The result, she suggests is that practitioners are overwhelmed, frustrated, and struggle to implement the findings from a report before a new one comes out. Ms Taylor suggests, and we would wholeheartedly agree with her, that maybe that money would be better spent on dedicated, ring fenced, services to implement the recommendations we already have and provide the much needed victim-focused services which are clearly needed.

Too often the response to inquiries, reviews, and reports by the time they come out, however damning, are that lessons have been learnt and changes made. The scandal which we need to face is why this keeps happening if lessons have been learnt? What happens in these areas when the glare of the media spotlight disappears and victims once again become the target of perpetrators whose behaviour society allows to go unchallenged?

Our recent evaluation of a specialist service working with young people at risk of sexual exploitation[ii] is that lessons haven’t been learnt. Austerity is impacting on the ability of statutory services, the police, social services, and youth services, to deal with the cases that fall onto their desks, let alone going out and finding what are hidden and difficult cases to deal with. Too often the services for those in need, as opposed to those where there is a statutory responsibility to intervene, are restricted, where they exist, to short term interventions. It beggars belief that commissioners think that someone being groomed for sexual exploitation would be identified, supported to recognise the abuse, and disclose that abuse in the 6 week support packages currently written into so many service contracts. Those being exploited need specialist support, over a long period of time, and for there to be coordinated responses between the police and support workers. All of that costs money which is increasingly difficult for local authorities and voluntary services to find.

Given the difficulties faced by service providers with ever increasing workloads and limited specialist service providers where they can send clients, it is not surprising that victims end up falling through the net. The vulnerabilities which perpetrators target victims for, are the same that allow agencies under pressure to perceive these victims as difficult and un-credible.

Rather than waste yet more money on an inquiry, the responses to which we have heard before, maybe the government and all political parties should commit to 10 years of ring fenced funding for the establishment of a national response. This should include specialist sexual exploitation workers to support victims in every area of the country and specialist dedicated police officers in those areas to use every law at their disposal to target perpetrators so it is their behaviour under the spotlight and not that of the victim.  Where this has happened in local areas, real progress has been made.  We need the same concerted effort nationally to tackle this problem.

The authors can be contacted at nm8543@bris.ac.uk and e.williamson@bris.ac.uk 

This blog was originally posted on the PolicyBristol blog. 

[i] Jay, A. (2014) Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham 1997 – 2013. Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council.

[ii] Mulvihill, N. and Williamson, E. (2014) An Evaluation of the GDVSAP Trafficking and Grooming Project, Gloucester, UK.  Bristol: Centre for Gender and Violence Research, University of Bristol.