Leeds City Council has been criticised for its failure to escalate a serious safeguarding case which resulted in a young girl being abused by her paedophile guardian.
‘Ruby’ (not her real name) was placed in the care of a convicted sex offender, who went on to sexually abuse her over a number of years, despite the authorities knowing his past, a shocking report released in January revealed.
The local authority initially decided the case did not meet a “serious harm” threshold, which requires them to notify a national safeguarding panel of such incidents.
That decision was later reversed after the police and NHS, which both sit alongside the council on the local safeguarding children board, objected.
But Jasvinder Sanghera CBE, who independently chairs that board, said she believed children should never be placed with sex offenders, adding, “If one doesn’t think that’s a serious incident, then what is?”
The case was mentioned at a children and young people scrutiny committee on Wednesday, following a widespread review of how such cases will be handled in future.
A respected author and campaigner against abuse, Ms Sanghera blew the whistle on the fallout between the council and its partners last year, before the precise details of Ruby’s case were made public.
Speaking at the committee meeting on Wednesday, she suggested that while the notification system had since improved, there was “still more to do” and suggested some of the lessons learnt from the case had not filtered all the way through the service.
After referring to Ruby’s case specifically, Ms Sanghera was asked by Conservative councillor Amanda Carter if she believed “paedophiles could be reformed?”
Coun Carter added: “That’s an important question, because clearly in the past we’ve placed children with paedophiles. If they can’t be reformed, then children shouldn’t be placed with them.”
Ms Sanghera replied: “I don’t think I can answer the question, ‘can they be reformed?’
“The question is how we risk assess those individuals, with whom we place children.
“We have to remember this placement was done with the authority of the court, that would have been informed by those assessments.
“My personal view is no you shouldn’t place children with registered sex offenders. That’s my personal view. I raise this because it’s a serious incident. If one doesn’t think that’s a serious incident, then what is?”
Picking up the issue, Conservative committee member Ryan Stephenson asked the council’s portfolio holder for children’s social care, Fiona Venner, if she thought sex offenders could ever be rehabilitated.
Councillor Venner replied: “That’s not something I’m qualified to answer. I’m not a practitioner, I’m a political lead for children safeguarding.”
Stating that she did not site on the review advisory group, which decides whether or not to escalate safeguarding cases, she added: “I’m never going to be in a position where I’m assessing risk around sex offenders, so I’m not in a position to answer a question around whether or not sex offenders can be rehabilitated.”
In response, Councillor Stephenson said: “I’m an elected member and I don’t think a convicted paedophile can ever be rehabilitated and I certainly don’t think a child should ever be put in their care.
“I’m asking your views as the person responsible for policy-making in Leeds, what your personal view is on that matter, because it’s important to understand how that policy is being shaped.”
Councillor Venner said: “I’m not going to be bounced into giving you an answer. If I was to be told about a case (by children’s services) it would be to inform me and not to ask my opinion. I’m not a practitioner.
“It’s not my position to make those kind of comments. Whether sex offenders can be rehabilitated is a very specialised area of work, which I don’t personally work in.”
Sources have indicated the original decision not to escalate Ruby’s case was based on an interpretation that only a child’s death would meet the serious harm threshold, though the authority has declined to publicly confirm that.
One of the failings that led to the paedophile being given custody of Ruby was social workers’ reliance on “outdated” assessments which suggested he did not pose a risk to her, January’s report found.
Despite practitioners having concerns about the family court’s decision to place Ruby in his care, these were not voiced and the matter was not appealed, the review said.
The council and its partners have not explained, despite repeated requests from the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS), why this was the case, what evidence it put before the court and why it used outdated assessments.
But Julie Longworth, the council’s interim director for children and families said social workers were now being “supported” to raise concerns where necessary.
She told the committee: “I think what we’ve seen at times in some of the instances we’ve been looking at, is that practitioners have felt a little uncomfortable.
“Perhaps they’ve felt something’s not quite right but they’ve felt that’s not been strong enough to escalate, or to initiate that concerns resolution process.
“There’s work we need to do around how we support practitioners to come together to talk when they’ve got a bit of a concern, because that’s how we’ll get a really timely response to these sorts of issues.”