The police, especially, will be amazed.
Yet that's the remarkable brief for a study for which researchers have been invited to tender, through Public Contracts Scotland, by the Care Inspectorate (Social Care and Social Work Improvement Scotland). Accountable to Scottish Ministers, it was formed from the Social Work Inspection Agency and the Care Commission. Both contained some senior staff much respected for their work against childhood abuse.
As a potential bidder for such research, I would greatly welcome the funding. But I felt so dismayed to read such a ludicrously unachievable and insulting brief that it seemed more important to speak out.
It's insulting: to the Scottish research community in universities and elsewhere; to Scotland's most vulnerable young people; and to agencies working with them. It is doomed to fail. You do not set time-frames and funding for serious research on important social issues with the small-change cash you need to shed by the end of a financial year.
The background lies in a 2012 Scottish Government expert consultation and report. That highlighted a lack of robust research evidence on the nature of child sexual exploitation (CSE) and the numbers experiencing it, and reported "considerable concern" about how far residential care contributed to the risks. Following English initiatives, charities like Barnardo's and other agencies who work with sexually exploited youngsters had pressed the Scottish Government for thorough research.
Concerns about sexual exploitation of vulnerable young women, for example in Rochdale, and heightened awareness in the wake of the Savile revelations, increase the topical urgency.
Yet this wide-ranging Scottish research, which the Inspectorate hope will provide "protection for children and young people in the services it regulates", will run only from 17 December to 31 March.
Between 24 December and 3-4 January is notoriously a "lost time". Yet a week later on 11 January the sampling and methodologies must be submitted; an interim report has to be in three weeks later, with the final report at end of March. What must researchers achieve by then?
l Identify the incidence of child sexual exploitation in Scottish residential care and fostering – including kinship care (children living with relatives other than their parents) and private fostering.
l Analyse and identify the relationship between numbers going missing from care and the incidence of such exploitation in Scotland – including if possible ages, gender and locations.
l Ascertain action to identify and respond to actual and potential exploitation
l Measure how well agencies work together to support children at risk, and to tackle actual or potential perpetrators.
l Consider regulation, make recommendations, then report in plain English.
For these massive tasks (surely at least two years' work), we would receive approximately £7500 after tax, but only by delivering on time. That fee includes travel, subsistence and out-of-pocket expenses for covering "the whole of Scotland".
The tender invitation asks: "What are the constraints you perceive which may impinge on your ability to provide a satisfactory service?"
Here's a few...
l Considerable ethical and personal safety issues (especially for the researchers and young people), including special support and supervision, need addressing first. Not discussing these is disgraceful in my view. Nor in any case could universities grant ethical approval so quickly.
l Every researcher knows analysis of the large amounts of data requested would take a whole team many months.
l How long would even the most willing, co-operative social workers, police, or health bureaucracies take to release detailed statistics? Why would care units, foster and kinship carers wish to reveal actual absconding levels – a major risk factor for CSE – if they saw this as failure with possible disciplinary implications? Do overworked foster or kinship carers keep accurate records of absconding? And how long would the extent of private fostering take to unearth?
l Why would suspicious, damaged young people instantly trust someone they didn't know, to reveal humiliating, embarrassing, often criminal activity?
l With good-practice exceptions, the care system deals inadequately and fearfully with child sexual abuse issues generally. How ready would it be then, with facts, figures and observations about CSE?
It's odd the Care Inspectorate did not learn about time needed and other problems from English research by the Children's Commissioner's office, Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups. This two-year inquiry – still continuing – had 115 submissions to their call for evidence request, made 14 site visits, took oral evidence from 68 professionals and interviewed 23 exploited children.
They found they needed to commission additional research from two university teams.
Though slightly different, highlighting gangs rather than in-care problems specifically, many research problems they faced are relevant to any exploration of the Scottish care system.
These include inconsistent recording of incidents where children go missing, different definitions of CSE and of "absence from care", poor data from health authorities, variations in data collection, and disjointed data sharing and flagging of possible CSE cases by police forces.
What might the Care Inspectorate do instead to start addressing sexual exploitation among vulnerable young people in the care system?
Well, a small team of knowledgeable people – specialists in residential social work and foster care, social researchers, police, adolescent mental-health staff, agencies supporting young people in care – might possibly produce, not the research but a specification for it by March 31. They could separate out research tasks for a rolling programme over, say, two years: accepting that results, too, will come in stages.
It could get absconding treated far more seriously. We've been talking about it since the 1980s. It could set up standard recording of absconding and other suspicious activity towards young people throughout residential and foster care over the next 12 months for data analysis, reassuring authorities and carers that logging is not to discipline them, but greatly to improve children's safety.
The Inspectorate could select, pilot, and evaluate in the Scottish care system a few examples of good practice already identified in English research. Why wait?
Protest over this particular tender invitation may also trigger debate about unsatisfactory research tender invitations generally through the public contracts system.
In particular, there's been frustration among researchers about unreasonable time demands and poor time-linked remuneration, in comparison with the time Government and its arms-length agencies often take to complete reports. There should not be one set of rules, expectations and remuneration for skills for those in public agencies and another for those outside them.
Dr Sarah Nelson of the University of Edinburgh specialises in research into childhood sexual abuse and its effects on children and adults.