There was much that was shocking about recent reports of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham. Although I have to admit I’ve not read Professor Jay’s report, one point from it jumped out at me from the press accounts. This was that the police treated the victims ‘with contempt’ and as ‘undesirables’ not worthy of protection. This contempt could have stemmed from a number of factors but I can’t help but speculate that one of them was poverty.
Coincidentally I had just finished reading a study of the links between shame and poverty. (The Shame of Poverty by Robert Walker and colleagues, Oxford University Press). It quotes a mother from Latin America speaking at the United Nations, observing that ‘the words could have been spoken by any of the respondents in any of the seven countries investigated’ including Britain. This woman explained that ‘the worst thing about living in extreme poverty is the contempt – that they treat you like you are worthless, that they look at you with disgust and fear and that they even treat you like an enemy. We and our children experience this every day, and it hurts us, humiliates us and makes us live in fear and shame’.
She was speaking at a conference organised by ATD Fourth World, an international anti-poverty organisation. Its London branch has just produced a wonderful collection of photographic portraits, The Roles we Play: Recognising the Contribution of People in Poverty, which will be launched next month. The message was the same. In the words of Kathy, one of the people featured: ‘When you live in long-term poverty, you have to depend on services that are delivered with suspicion and disdain. They make you feel humiliated’.
I fear that this suspicion and disdain contributed to the shameful response to child sexual exploitation from the people with power in Rotherham who could have done something about it. ATD is developing a training programme to help social workers understand poverty and its effects better. What the Rotherham experience suggests is that such training is needed much more widely.