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30 September 2014
Tackling exploitation

Tackling exploitation

Behind each capital letter lies a story that no words can truly capture.

Child F was groomed for sexual exploitation aged 13 by a man 14 years her senior before being subjected to repeated rapes and sexual assaults by different perpetrators, none of whom were brought to justice.

Child B, who was groomed by an older man involved in the exploitation of other children and trafficked to other parts of the country, had petrol poured over her and was threatened with being set alight.

Child H – just 11 when she came to the attention of the police, having disclosed she and another child had been sexually assaulted by adult males – was found in a derelict house with another child and a number of men only to be arrested herself for being drunk and disorderly, while not one of the adults faced arrest.

These cases, of which there are 15 referenced in Professor Alexis Jay’s report, are “typical not extreme” examples of what the former Chief Social Work Adviser to the Scottish Government came across in the course of her inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham. “They were not the worst,” she assures me. A month on from revealing details of the inquiry’s findings, a stack of papers still sits precariously in one corner of her front room. It is not the only bundle I’m told.

“What I wasn’t prepared for was the utter brutality that accompanied the horrific crimes of sexual exploitation, mostly, but not only, rape of course, but it was the brutality that accompanied it that was terrible to read about as well, as if one crime weren’t bad enough.” That detail is in no way diluted in the final report. Rather, its 153 pages are free from oft-used jargon and professional language that seeks to soften. “I always think it’s important that victims are put first; that’s why the victims and the experiences of the victims come first in the report and that there’s no obfuscation of the kind of experiences that they had,” says Prof Jay, describing the appreciative reaction of a number of victims and their families as “very gratifying”.

She herself interviewed more than 120 people, including a number of those directly affected over the 16-year period. “That helped a lot to convey to me the absolute desperation of parents in these circumstances, it was terrible, absolutely terrible,” she recalls. “They didn’t get the help [they needed]… in some instances when they tried to rescue their daughters the police arrested them. A range of bizarre things happened – there is no accounting for it.”

As for the number of victims, at least 1,400 children were sexually exploited in Rotherham between 1997 and 2013, the inquiry estimated. That, though, by Prof Jay’s own admission, was a conservative estimate. “I have no idea and nor does anybody actually know what the true numbers were or indeed are at the moment,” she acknowledges. The failures, however, were blatant: denial of the scale of CSE despite three separate reports between 2002 and 2006 spelling out the situation in clear detail; a reluctance to focus on the ethnicity of perpetrators, and, in some cases, direction from on high not to for fear of being labelled racist; a failure by police to prioritise CSE to the extent that many victims were treated with contempt.

“One of the things that took me by surprise was the amazing selective memory that people had,” she says. “The number of times I would say, ‘I would have thought this might be quite significant’, ‘No, I can’t recall, I can’t recall any of that, I can’t recall this, I can’t recall these issues happening, etc, etc’.” Her job was not to call for heads, she reiterates, albeit a number have rolled. Rotherham Council leader Roger Stone resigned within hours, while Council chief executive Martin Kimber announced his intention to step down later this year. In recent weeks, South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Shaun Wright, who was head of children’s services in Rotherham between 2005 and 2010, eventually caved in to repeated calls – extending as far up as the Prime Minister – for his resignation, which was to be followed by that of director of children’s services at Rotherham Council, Joyce Thacker. “Ultimately, I think it probably was [the right move],” she says of the two recent departures.

Regrets do linger, however, that a number of the “good guys” who were “simply listed in an appendix” of interviewees have faced an intense media spotlight. “That’s been difficult and I think people were just looking at lists of names and attaching photographs to them if they were available and assuming there was some kind of shared responsibility amongst all of them, which is absolutely not the case. I was quite clear that there were people at different times who tried their hardest but didn’t get the support to deal with the issue.”

On the afternoon her report was released, she conducted almost two-dozen interviews. In the days that followed, publications as international as the New York Times were in touch. “What occurred in Rotherham is not exceptional at all and it’s not unique,” adds Prof Jay. “I think what was striking was because it was the first time anyone had commissioned a longitudinal look at this. Historically, we were looking at 16 years and that, of course, makes the impact all the greater. But if anyone had chosen to look historically at many other areas then they’d probably have found a similar pattern and scale, so I do constantly emphasise that it is absolutely not unique.”

That said, the former Chief Inspector of Social Work and president of the Association of Directors of Social Work (ADSW), is reluctant, understandably, to weigh in on the specific situation in Scotland given her focus in the last year has been on Rotherham. “I would imagine there are similar problems as there are in England in actually knowing the scale of the issue, because, as far as I know, we have no standard national system for counting child sexual exploitation and nor do they in England so it’s very hard to benchmark,” says Prof Jay.

“Of course. Rotherham is not the only area, far from it. Between Rochdale, Bradford, Oxford, we could go on and on, there have been so many of them, but it’s difficult to compare one with another because there isn’t a national data collection system around CSE. I don’t know whether there should or there shouldn’t be. Scotland may be small enough for that to be known about in each child protection committee and to have a good grasp on the issue in comparison to England.”

What we do know is that two large-scale operations have been launched in Scotland in recent years, one of which remains a live ongoing criminal investigation that, as of August, had resulted in 21 individuals being reported to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. Subsequent to her review, Barnardo’s Scotland outlined 15 lessons to be learned from Rotherham, flagging up the fact that only two convictions for the offence of ‘payment of sexual services of a child’ have been achieved in the near decade since legislation was introduced.

“I don’t know the situation in Scotland, I’d hesitate to be critical, but it’s an interesting phenomenon, I don’t believe low levels of convictions means low levels of crime,” she says, albeit holding out hope that recent victims and witness legislation might provide better protection and support for vulnerable young people going through the court process. One specific dimension she is keen to discuss in Scotland is how far, at the moment, youth services are being utilised in tackling CSE, having seen the trust young people placed in one street-level youth project in Rotherham.

“Yes [the inquiry has opened my eyes], and I hope as a consequence it has opened the public’s eyes,” Prof Jay adds. “You can understand, in a professional abstract way, about this kind of crime but once you start talking to people who were victims and their families and reading about them and hearing about it, it’s very hard to remain detached and not feel very passionate about the need for this to be tackled properly.”

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