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INSIDE TRACK: Report on children fails to provide answers

You probably won't know this, but a report was published last week on child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Scotland's care system.

One leading Scottish agency commissioned another to investigate whether children in the care of the state - looked after children, to use the painfully ironic jargon - are being exploited for sex.

We know this is a problem elsewhere - notably in England where Rotherham and Rochdale have both endured grooming scandals in which children in care were targeted.

Barnardo's estimates a third of sexually exploited children in England are looked after. Some have been plied with alcohol, drugs and favours for sex itself, or sexual images. And Police Scotland strongly suspects this is an issue in north of the border.

It's a pretty important and horrifying topic which the media would usually share with readers. So why haven't you read about this report? Largely, I think, because it told us next to nothing at all.

Carried out on behalf of the Care Inspectorate by the Centre for Excellence in Looked After Children in Scotland (CELCIS), its remit was to provide new, reliable information.

Helpfully, the authors tell us they set out to establish the prevalence of CSE among children who are looked after by social work at home, or in residential care. They wanted to find out whether such young Scots are being targeted by groomers. They wanted to find out whether there was a link between children going missing from care services, and their subsequent sexual exploitation.

That's really where the helpfulness ends, as the study doesn't seem to me to answer any of these questions.

A lengthy literature review recaps what we know already - not much. The report asked social workers for both facts and estimates about whether 75 young people in their care have been sexually exploited. But the researchers admit the sample is tiny and say findings can't be generalised to other Scottish children in care.

For what it is worth, 8% of the 75 young people were confirmed to have been exploited in the last year and a further 13% were suspected to have been. That answers the prevalence question "with some degree of certainty" according to the report, but it quickly adds that only more research can tell whether the figures are representative. The report cannot say whether children in care are targeted disproportionately by groomers, and of 13 children going missing from care last year six were known or suspected to have been sexually exploited. It's another tiny sample.

I'm told the Care Inspectorate thinks the findings are 'interesting' and will inform future work. CELCIS feels the report is a small step towards greater understanding.

A regular contributor to The Herald's Society page, academic and expert in the field Sarah Nelson wrote a scathing piece for us a fraction over a year ago. She said the study's £10,000 budget and three-month research timetable were totally inadequate.

I think she's been proved right.

The Scottish Parliament's petitions committee has a report due on CSE next year. Perhaps that will help shed more light on this disturbing problem.

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