Rotherham: How a council not fit for purpose is clawing its way back

Rotherham's head of children's services, Ian Thomas. Picture: Scott Merrylees
Rotherham's head of children's services, Ian Thomas. Picture: Scott Merrylees

Rotherham’s head of children’s services said he knew major progress had been made following the child exploitation scandal when a victim declared she was “finally proud” to come from the South Yorkshire town.

Ian Thomas, who stepped in to deal with the “toxic” mess in the wake of the scandal in 2014, described how he wiped away tears when Emma Jackson, who who was abused by a sex ring in Rotherham in the early 2000s, spoke of her regained confidence in the local authorities.

The director of children’s services at Rotherham Council said “immeasurable progress” had been made over the last two years since an independent report prepared by Government official Louise Casey considered the council to be “not fit for purpose”.

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And it was positive feedback from victims and survivors that truly highlighted the vast improvements that had been made since the “dark days”, according to the man tasked with what was once dubbed “the most difficult job in Britain”.

Mr Thomas said: “What is the most powerful is when you hear survivors themselves saying they have confidence in the council now.

“When we opened the premises for Evolve, a multi-agency specialist team tackling child exploitation, Emma Jackson cut the ribbon.

“To hear her say ‘I am finally proud to come from Rotherham’ after suffering such horrific abuse was emotional and it brought a tear to my eye. It encapsulated everything we have been working for and it speaks volumes into how far we have travelled.

“It was a very emotional day as it was attended by other child sex exploitation (CSE) victims and survivors and their families.

“In one respect it matters less what I say. It’s more about what our survivors and victims tell us and that is very compelling.”

When Mr Thomas took over from Joyce Thacker who resigned in September 2014 in the wake of the Jay Report, he was tasked with three main priorities:

To ensure that those who had been affected by such horrendous crimes in Rotherham had access to a wide range of high quality post abuse support.

To work with police to help secure convictions.

To start to transform children’s services, which was branded “inadequate by Ofsted” and to take urgent action to make the system safer and develop a service of high quality.

Mr Thomas said progress had been made with all three, including the establishment of the country’s largest CSE service, Reach out. The independent preventative service represents an innovative partnership between statutory and voluntary agencies including the KPMG Foundation, Rotherham Council, The Department for Education, The Communities and Local Government Department and Barnardo’s.

Mr Thomas said: “In the early days the council was not a trusted entity as you can imagine following the reports of Ofsted and Louise Casey. So it was important victims could access services from trusted providers.

“Tackling the inadequacy of children’s services has not been easy. It’s not an overnight fix. It takes years to mend a system when it is broken.

If you consider that Professor Alexis Jay found the failures were really going back to 1997, you are talking about two decades of failure in Rotherham.

“However because we have put resources in place and provision we are seeing a marked improvement.”

Mr Thomas said CSE services were much sharper, there was a better response to referrals, earlier help for children that needed support and more social workers in place.

He said: “I would suggest people have increased confidence in the authorities. An increase in referrals reflects this.

“If you are a perpetrator of CSE you are much more likely to be sent to jail in Rotherham today, when compared with previously. We are really proud of that. It instills confidence in the community.”

Mr Thomas is now setting his sights on helping the Rotherham community to recover from the impact of CSE.

He said: I think the most difficult challenge is regaining trust and confidence given the extent of what happened here historically, which is all a matter of public record.

“Everyone knows about Rotherham’s infamy.

“We are certainly starting to turn a corner. Most people, if you think about it, do not understand the nuances of child protection and what that looks like, because it affected a small number of people in a small place.

“However, everyone understands when people go to jail and when you see criminals brought to justice. It’s the most powerful thing that can happen to reinstill confidence.

“We have been talking to young people and families who can feel a sense of things changing. Through sentencing and convictions they are seeing that justice is being served.”

The healing process is also continuing for staff at the council, who were deeply affected by the wave of criticism the authority received on an international scale in the wake of the scandal.

Mr Thomas said: “Behind the scenes we have done a lot of work to support colleagues. We have got the most resilient staff in the country. To go through what they went through after Professor Jay, Ofsted and Louise Casey and still get up and go to work and provide support for families, despite all the vilifications and ongoing targeting, is proof of this.

“All they needed was investment in them and they have benefitted from training and development, which is evident in the quality of work coming through.

“I couldn’t’ be more proud of people who work in the service and our partners and everyone who is working towards the same endeavour.”

Mr Thomas said the authority was now looking to the future and focusing more on the quality of the work that had been undertaken over the last two years.

He said: “We are reviewing the quality of every single interaction with a child or family to make sure the life of the child is better as a result. We encourage feedback from families and 98 per cent said the service was good or outstanding.We rely on feedback and we are always making improvements.

“It’s been such a slog but there is more work to do, we know that. But everyone that here is up for it and I’m really heartened by that.

“I am proud to be the director of children’s services at Rotherham and a member of a driving force for the good.”