What’s the frequency, Kenneth?*

IMG_4365I recently contributed a short piece to the Sussex European Institute newsletter (link to follow) focusing on one of five critiques that I’m developing of the current state of children’s participation. I call this the institutional critique. The critique runs something along the lines that, despite large material, symbolic and practical investments to develop institutional capacity to enact Article 12 (a child’s right to be listened to and to be consulted on decisions that affect them) in England, children’s voices remain unheard in practice settings and in their everyday lives with, at times, dire consequences.

I was initially prompted to think about the vacuum of children’s voices by what happened in Rochdale in 2012, around the time I started to draft the Connectors bid. In my reading I came across a news article about “Suzie”, a young woman who had made repeated attempts to alert the authorities to what was happening to her. The BBC online coverage reports that Suzie’s claims of serious sexual assault were originally ‘not recognised’ by the police and the timeline provided by the BBC describes a number of attempts to have her experiences acknowledged. Her attempts were met with inaction from social services. The police did not initially recognise her reality. Later, when they acknowledged what was happening, they did not take her complaint seriously enough for it to be dealt with effectively. Finally, attention from children’s social services was repeatedly deflected away from Suzie’s needs for protection (still technically a child under UNCRC) to the needs of her unborn baby.

The continued revelations of child sexual abuse (CSA) and exploitation (CSE) in England over the subsequent 24+ months, have given me multiple opportunities to think about the institutional dynamics of children’s participation beyond the usual critique of ‘tokenism’ (i.e. that efforts to listen to and involve children in decision-making are not meaningful, productive or lead to any improvement for children and those who work with them). Here was Suzie, a young woman who was voicing her concerns. To no avail. Her voice just didn’t carry.

For me Suzie’s and other similar experiences, raise questions about the speech acts underlying children’s participation and what I would like to tentatively call ‘societal acoustics’: the qualities of a space that determine how sound is transmitted in it. The coverage I was reading suggested childhood in a vacuum. Sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum.

This August news of more child sexual exploitation was revealed, this time in Rotherham, and links were once again made to the case of Laura Wilson a 17-year-old who was found murdered in Rotherham in May 2012. Laura, the mother of a four-month-old daughter at the time of her death, had been known to local agencies for a long time, she lived in a deprived area of Rotherham and there was known physical and emotional abuse in her family. Laura also had learning difficulties. The serious case review into her life and death described her as a difficult and elusive young woman to engage with on the one hand and ‘almost invisible to some services’ on the other. The challenge of her case resulted in inconsistent and disengaged care, and the review also described how services had not taken her needs (especially her learning difficulties) into adequate consideration.

While mainstream media coverage likes to weave CSA/CSE stories around a narrative of blame (typically ascribed to individual social workers), the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham provides us with an interesting read in that it describes a vacuum that goes beyond the children and young people who may or may not have been trying to make themselves heard.

The report documents the extent of children’s exploitation and in so doing brings more voices into the vacuum’s fold. Youth workers, residential care workers and other professionals were also not listened to and in some cases were actively deterred from making any disclosures about what was happening in Rotherham. One researcher speaking anonymously to Radio 4 Today’s Programme about her findings of child sexual abuse and exploitation in Rotherham and Rotherham Council’s response to those findings, said that she was asked by senior managers to edit her comments and findings ‘to give a very different picture, not necessarily of what had happened to the young people but a very different story about the professional responses. And I got the impression that it was very much about presenting Rotherham in a favourable light’.

Reports and experiences such as the above suggest that the speech act of participation is much more complex and goes beyond a personal capacity to voice and the interpersonal dynamics of dialogue as suggested by Article 12: a child voicing suffering and an adult professional or group of professionals, listening and responding to that experience and information. What is known so far about the historic cases of CSA/CSE perpetrated by Jimmy Savile and other public figures, reveals the complicity of trusted institutions and in some commentaries implicates the public at large. What and how much was known and spoken about what was happening at the time was, and continues to be, strongly debated.

What theory can we draw on to make sense of what might be happening to children’s voices here?

Inspired by some of David Oswell’s writing on agency, childhood and human rights and, as reference to vacuums and acoustics suggests, I have been playing around with a sound analogy for thinking through the dynamics of children’s participation. Voice is such a central concept to feminism and now childhood studies that even if, as Laura Lundy (2007) has convincingly argued, drawing on research conducted on behalf of the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, ‘voice is not enough’, it is worth unpacking the concept of voice theoretically to understand why this is the case and why a more holistic approach to children’s rights is needed (I can’t do all the unpacking here, just making a start!).

Oswell, drawing on the classic distinction between voice and speech associated with private and public spheres respectively, argues that infants and children have voice but ‘no political speech, no organised political expression’ and that ‘voices become political speech only through the alliances and networks with others’ (Oswell, 2009, p. 6-14). ‘Children,’ according to Oswell, ‘don’t speak on their own’ (p.14). In other words it’s about the connections that are made through speech that lead to action.

The events over the last 24+ months have prompted a number of actions. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner published its Inquiry on Child Sexual Exploitation in March 2013 and, in July 2014 the UK government announced an independent inquiry into sexual abuse in childhood. Both inquiries continue to use the sound analogy (‘if only someone had listened’ and ‘each of them [referring to the members of the panel] has a track record of giving a voice to vulnerable people and will bring important expertise and experience to the Inquiry’). Yet, the testimonies that have been collected so far back the idea that something more is needed to turn voice into speech:

‘The team and everything they did. It’s more the fact that they got to know us. Not force it out of us but they got to know us. Built that relationship and um… obviously when we felt we could trust them, we bring it out and told them what is going on. It’s better than the fact that “oh. I just met you. Tell me what is going on.” It was building that relationship that was nice’ (young person quoted in Berelowitz et al 2013; my emphasis).

The need for connections, intimate solidarities if you like, is expressed very clearly in the testimonies given to the Office of the Children’s Commissioner. It is also a way of understanding how a child or young person might end up in a grooming situation (building a relationship over time, creating trust, making someone feel safe).

The absence of safe spaces and opportunities to form creative and productive solidarities in everyday life for children and young people (and for some of those more than others) should have us turning our gaze to broader community and national dynamics. Our knowledge of what’s transpired under the category of CSA/CSE to-date suggests a much more complex and incomplete narrative about CSA/CSE involving the politics of age, race relations, gender, sexuality, local politics, and growing inequalities that go beyond the simple story of vulnerable children, evil perpetrators and inadequate services.

Understanding CSA/CSE will require analytical courage as it goes to the heart of contemporary lived experience in England today. It also requires thinking about children, childhood and participation differently and joining up the dots between participation and other, less focused on civil and political rights in childhood and thinking about how a social justice response to inequality, violence and exploitation emerge in childhood. Thinking about participation as an ethical sensibility in everyday life and as children move through institutional spaces is of central concern to the Connectors Study.

These considerations are also at the heart of a new evaluation study recently commissioned by the OCC. The evaluation, which is being carried out by Sussex colleagues, will follow the introduction and implementation of the OCC’s new ‘See Me, Hear Me’ framework aimed at developing professional responses to CSE in several Local Authorities around the country.

There is one other piece of theoretical work that reappeared on my horizon recently as I personally tried to grapple with the ‘how on earth is this possible and why is it still happening?’ question. Stanley Cohen’s classic book States of Denial makes for sober reading against this backdrop of CSA/CSE stories. Cohen carried out a thorough, unrelenting and compassionate analysis of all the ways in which human atrocities and suffering are possible and continue to be allowed to happen. States of denial, public and private, are at the core and Cohen warns against bracketing off the political analysis of private and social suffering.

It is really good to see that ‘denial’ itself is being named publically (for the first time?) in the OCC’s Inquiry as one aspect of the complex picture that is emerging about CSE/CSA. Acknowledgement, as anyone in the business of personal and social change knows, is the first step in a long and on-going journey of personal and social transformation.

You can hear more about the Connectors Study at the seminar I’m giving this Monday 22 September between 5-6.30pm in Fulton 104, University of Sussex or join us virtually. More details here .

* The title of this post makes reference to the REM song ‘What’s the frequency, Kenneth?’ itself inspired by a seemingly random act of violence. An explanation for what happened eventually emerged.

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