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The Rotherham Abuse Scandal

About The Author

Sophie Cole-Hamilton (Writer)

Sophie is a second year law student at the University of Birmingham. Sophie aspires to qualifying as a solicitor, with an interest in all areas of private law. Outside of her studies, Sophie is part of the Birmingham Law School pro bono group and has a passion for writing.

Over the course of 16 years, it is estimated that 1,400 children have been sexually abused by gangs in the South Yorkshire town of Rotherham. It has recently come to light that the agencies responsible for protecting young people in this instance failed in doing so, namely: South Yorkshire Police and Rotherham Borough Council. This has led to major criticisms of Police and local authorities’ dealings with exploited children. Many politicians are asking two ultimate questions: firstly, how have so many victims been ignored in Rotherham, and secondly, what can be done to adequately punish those who failed in their authoritative positions and the gangs who have abused so many?

Authorities’ attitudes to the exploitation suffered by victims

I went to the Police when I was 16 after 2 years of abuse. He said they had every right to abuse me; what do you expect? If a Police Officer says that to you, where do you go from there?

This is just one account of one of hundreds of victims who told South Yorkshire Police of their plight. Many victims were groomed by teenage boys of their own age, who would then introduce them to adults who would further perpetuate the abuse. Some victims tell of their parents locking them in the house to protect them from the grooming gangs outside, and some parents even decided to move their child out of the area.

Threats were also made to parents, with one victim saying: ‘they threatened to rape my mum. I thought: “well if I don’t go and see them they’ll get my mum and they’ll rape her too.”’ Through all of this, the attitude of South Yorkshire Police was indifferent, cold and, arguably, downright negligent.

The truly appalling nature of the abuse, exploitation and humiliation the teenage victims suffered in Rotherham makes for heavy reading. Professor Alexis Jay’s independent report, which examines the exploitation in Rotherham between 1997 and 2013, found that the gangs involved had used petrol dousing of victims as a punishment. It also found that teenage girls were being trafficked all over the UK from Rotherham. Many victims also report being made to witness horrific gang rapes, all the while being threatened by the groups and ignored by the Police.

Perhaps one of the most atrocious facts here is that many of the victims were in care and were therefore known to the authorities. Female victims in care were more susceptible to being targeted by gangs; in the place of parents or guardians to protect them and show concern, they supposedly had the Council’s social work units. One female victim who was in care at the time of being abused recalls being taken to a house with another victim and two Asian males:

I'm assuming I was reported missing because Police arrived. She and I were pushed to the side of the bed, naked, and a Police Officer came to the side of the bed. I locked eyes with him and he said “there is nobody here” and left. We got dropped off back at the kids' home the next day.

The independent report: what went wrong?

These failings by the authorities were exposed in the aforementioned extensive report provided by Professor Alexis Jay. Professor Jay is the former chief social work inspector for Scotland who is highly experienced in investigating large scale sexual exploitation in poor communities. Despite her familiarity with such cases, Jay has expressed her shock at the ‘utter brutality’ of the abuse suffered, and has said it is ‘truly frightening that people in our country could be doing that’.

The report details the horrific abuse inflicted upon girls as young as 11 by gangs operating within Rotherham. This abuse is still continuing; at the time of the report being published, the caseload of the specialist Child Sexual Exploitation (“CSE”) team within Rotherham Borough Council was 51, with many other cases being dealt with by other social workers. CSE case workers are overwhelmed with their caseload, and this is surely not helped when many of the cases they try to persevere with are taken no further by other departments. The report also states that South Yorkshire Police received a total of 157 reports of CSE within the Rotherham borough last year.

Alexis Jay acknowledges that several ineffective Council meetings, of which records are scarce, were held and unsuccessful initiatives started between 1997 and 2013 to help tackle CSE. It is said that Council and Police bosses seemed unconcerned with the welfare of CSE victims, claiming that frontline youth workers who first discovered the scale of the exploitation were exaggerating. Furthermore, Jay’s report states that one manager commented that child neglect was ‘more serious’ than CSE. This assumption follows on from changes made by major investigations into child neglect, such as those concerning Victoria Climbié, Daniel Pelka and Baby P. Despite the terrible abuse these children suffered by their primary carers, “child neglect” and “child sexual exploitation” should not be weighed against each other. Both groups of victims are in dire need of help, and are likely to be at serious risk of harm.

The report further acknowledges the severe lack of communication between authorities and Rotherham’s Pakistani community, despite many victims remembering their abusers as being of Pakistani descent. The report suggests that Council workers and Police avoided acting upon victims’ reports from fear of appearing racist, with many in the Pakistani community accusing the authorities of “tiptoeing around” to avoid racism, therefore ignoring the real issues. A Home Office worker, sent to investigate the failing Council, tells of being sent to an ethnic diversity training course after writing a report highlighting that many of the abusers were men of Pakistani descent.

Furthermore, when Police and Council workers interacted with the Pakistani community, they mainly focused on speaking to male community leaders and Imams. As a result, Jay’s report says Pakistani women felt disconnected from the Police’s and Council’s enquiries, viewing this as a barrier preventing them speaking out about CSE. Many of the Pakistani community expressed concern that grooming and exploitation was also happening to young Asian girls, with this being under-investigated by the authorities. Alexis Jay recommends that this issue should be addressed immediately.

Overall, South Yorkshire Police and the social care departments of Rotherham Borough Council have failed on a huge scale. The overwhelming evidence proving the sexual exploitation of young girls, as examined in Alexis Jay’s report, adequately shows that preventative action must be taken.

Who should be held accountable in Rotherham?

Since the failures of authorities in Rotherham have been exposed, many key figures have resigned from their positions. This, after some reluctance, includes South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Shaun Wright, who also served as head of Children’s Services at Rotherham Borough Council between 2005 and 2010. The Home Affairs committee conducted an investigation into CSE in Rotherham, and came to the conclusion that Wright was ‘a charlatan and a disgrace, who is in love with his office and salary’. Other key figures who have reluctantly stepped down from their positions as a result of Alexis Jay’s report include Roger Stone, leader of Rotherham Borough Council, Joyce Thacker, head of Children’s Services, and Martin Kimber, chief executive at the Council. As well as this, four Labour party members representing the Council have been suspended and are due to be investigated.

Despite many being pleased by these changes in leadership in Rotherham, many argue the blatant cover-ups by the Council and the Police require further action be taken against former Council leaders. South Yorkshire Police are launching their own investigation and the Council is looking at governance structures to prevent such abuse happening again. However, it may be best for a rigorous re-training programme to be implemented upon the Council and the Police force to prevent further cases of inaction. Young victims should not be turned away when they are in evident need of help, as the Jay report demonstrates; adequate Police training is required to prevent such instances happening, regardless of fears of racial prejudice.

Furthermore, some believe that the resignation of Roger Stone, Shaun Wright and others is not strong enough reparation for victims. Despite the Home Affairs select committee chairing an inquiry into the negligent behavior of authorities, apologies should be made and explanations given for what went so horribly wrong in Rotherham.

Since the start of the criminal investigation into the perpetrators of abuse in Rotherham, the specialist Police team dealing with CSE has secured 104 convictions. A further 40 suspects are on bail, and the team has expanded from three Police Officers in 2010 to 62 at present. Although this is good progress, a total of 154 abusers being held accountable is a small number compared with the estimated 1,400 exploited. While it is naïve to think all of those who exploited young girls in Rotherham will be prosecuted, the Police must work constantly and thoroughly with the Council to find more abusers and bring them to justice.

In the wake of the Rotherham scandal, the main political parties have expressed their disgust and dismay by promising reforms to deal with and prevent such exploitation happening again. Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, has argued that legal changes made by a re-elected Conservative government next year would require advocates to undergo specialist training before taking part in sexual abuse trials or rape trials, making court procedures less distressing for victims:

Our criminal justice system can be daunting, and victims, especially the most vulnerable, can find it traumatic and difficult to know where to turn to for advice and support.

On the other end of the political scale, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, Shadow Justice Secretary, has promised that a “victim’s law” will be introduced if Labour are elected into government next year. He has said that the abuse seen in Rotherham should never be repeated, and victims should never be disbelieved by authorities. Yvette Cooper has backed this proposal by saying that people working with children should be required to report suspected child sexual exploitation to the Police and that institutional reputations should not be prioritised over the safeguarding of children. Furthermore, Keir Starmer QC, the former Director of Public Prosecutions has also called for a victims’ law to remove the “culture of disbelief”.

Although these suggestions are necessary during such a scandal, it appears that the wrong thing is being targeted. Thus far, only 154 of the perpetrators of CSE in Rotherham have been prosecuted. This is an immediate flaw in both Grayling’s and Khan’s ideas for reform. How will a victim’s law work if we have no perpetrators identified to prosecute? Further to this, even when perpetrators are identified, victims of sexual exploitation may find it extremely difficult to assist court proceedings by writing a personal statement detailing the abuse they suffered. Returning to the earlier discussion regarding child neglect being prioritised by Rotherham Borough Council, it would seem that the Government's main priorities should be to tackle Police attitudes to child sexual exploitation and how things are prioritised by social services.

Moreover, Cooper’s suggestion that it should be mandatory for workers to report suspected CSE may prove ineffective unless institutions learn to work together and communicate. Jay’s report details frontline youth workers in Rotherham telling the Council and Police of their concerns for exploited children as early as 2004, but this was never acted upon by either authority. Although a requirement may force workers to go to the Police, if their claims are not acted upon by the Police this law will be ineffective.

How can we prevent this from happening again?

The scale of sexual exploitation in Rotherham is incomprehensible. Thousands of victims have had their lives ruined by their perpetrators, and only made worse by the Council and Police disbelieving them and not acting effectively to prosecute their abusers. This is a scandal that has shocked politicians and the public alike, and swift action must be taken to make sure this does not continue in Rotherham or anywhere else in the country. Officials in Rotherham have rightly taken the blame for negligently ignoring the issue, but rigorous training must be given to all agencies to spot the signs of child exploitation. Furthermore, authorities fearing institutional racism and avoiding engagement with Rotherham’s Pakistani community cannot be ignored. Council workers’ and Police attitudes to institutional racism and political correctness must be changed. Evading this scandal is not the way to make amends. Until attitudes are changed, laws to stop this behaviour will be ineffective, and children will continue to be sexually exploited.

Further Reading:

The Spectator: Who will be held to account for the horror in Rotherham?

Nazir Afzal: There is no religious basis for the abuse in Rotherham

New Statesman: How have MPs dealt with cases like the Rotherham child abuse scandal in the past?

Channel 4: Beyond Rotherham: the scale of child sexual exploitation revealed

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Tagged: Criminal Law, Justice

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