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Special Report: Child Sexual Exploitation

After recent reports of child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Telford affecting up to 1,000 girls, we look at how far we have really come in tackling the heinous crime that is CSE.

Child sexual exploitation has been thrown into the spotlight again this month after a Sunday Mirror investigation revealed that up to 1,000 girls may have been the victims of CSE over the last 40 years in Telford.

The 18-month long investigation claims authorities ignored warnings that children as young as 11 years old were being targeted by sex gangs, drugged, beaten and raped, echoing earlier reports of such abuse in Rotherham and Rochdale.

A statement from Telford and Wrekin Council said that child sexual exploitation is “a vile evil crime” and insisted that Telford would be covered in a national review of CSE led by Professor Alexis Jay. The council has since stressed that it has called for a government-commissioned independent expert inquiry into child sexual exploitation and would be seeking a meeting with the Home Office to discuss the best way forward.

Professor Jay previously led an inquiry into CSE in Rotherham which revealed that 1,500 young people had been the victim of CSE.

However, while the scale of the abuse in Rotherham was 1,500 young people, this was in a community of 260,000. In Telford, the population is 170,000 suggesting the latest scandal could be the most brutal and long-running of all.

The investigation highlighted that:

  • Social workers knew of abuse in the 1990s but police took a decade to investigate the allegations
  • Council staff viewed abused and trafficked children as “prostitutes” instead of victims, according to previously unseen files
  • Authorities failed to keep details of abusers from Asian communities for fear of “racism”
  • Police failed to investigate one recent case five times until an MP intervened.

Drugged and gang-raped

Investigators spoke to 12 victims who accused more than 70 abusers and claimed that violent rapes were still taking place just months ago.

One victim told investigators that she was groomed and abused at 14-years-old and was told that if she reported the crimes, the perpetrators would target her younger sisters. She said she was forced to have sex with men in squalid takeaways or houses. She repeatedly took the morning after pill, had two terminations and just after her 16th birthday, she was drugged and gang-raped by five men.

The report also revealed that 16-year-old Lucy Lowe was killed in 2000 along with her mother and sister after her 26-year-old abuser Azhar Ali Mehmood set fire to their house. The taxi driver, who targeted Lucy in 1997 when she was just 14, was jailed for murdering Lucy, her mum Eileen and 17-year-old sister Sarah. However, he was never arrested nor charged in connection with any child sex crimes over his illegal relationship with the schoolgirl. Lucy’s death was then used as a warning to other girls, according to victims.

A police investigation called ­Operation Chalice identified a potential 200 abusers between 2010-2012, but only seven were jailed.

CSE is the ‘number one priority’

Assistant Chief Constable for West Mercia Police, Martin Evans, said: “Police in Telford take all reports of child sexual exploitation (CSE), the systematic emotional, physical and psychological abuse of young people, and grooming, extremely seriously.

“Tackling such horrific offences is the number one priority for police in Telford and we have not only increased officer numbers to tackle this type of offending but use all of our resources and technology available to prosecute anyone who sexually offends against children whether that offending took place today, yesterday or decades ago.

“The whole issue of offending against children has risen in profile as a result of a number of high profile cases, including Operation Chalice in 2013.

“This was one of the first national complex critical investigations into grooming offences. It centred on historic offending in Telford and Wrekin and ultimately resulted in seven men being jailed for a total of 49 years.

“Over the subsequent years, we have continuously focused on this area, whilst working very closely with our communities to ensure there is confidence to report issues people become aware of.

“We work alongside health and local authority professionals as the Community Safety Partnership, which my local Commander, Superintendent Tom Harding chairs. CSE is the partnership's number one priority.

“Last year government officials from the Home Office spent time visiting the area and personally paid thanks to the commitment of the staff working to protect young people at risk from sexual exploitation.

“They also recognised the strong working partnership ethos between the police, social workers and health professionals.

“The positive focus of Superintendent Harding and his team on achieving the best outcomes for victims and the force's use of intelligence to identify risk were also highlighted.

“This Home Office inspection and the Ofsted inspection have both praised the partner agencies in Telford for working so positively together to tackle the issue of CSE,” said Martin Evans.

‘We have learned lessons’

A statement from Telford and Wrekin Council added: “All agencies in the borough continue to work very closely together and we must leave no stone unturned - this remains our top priority.

“Our approach to CSE is now very different from 10 – 20 years ago.  We have learned lots of lessons and made many changes to our practices, which we keep under constant review.

“In 2009 we were one the first councils to set up a task force with police and other agencies to tackle CSE and this has led to seven men being convicted at the time. We and our partners are constantly on the lookout for indicators of CSE so that we can pass information on to police to stop CSE and bring these evil criminals to justice. Indeed further cases are now coming through court.

“For any victim to come forward requires huge courage, and we are committed to offering them our full support and help.

“In 2013, we commissioned our own independent review into CSE. In July 2016 this was covered by an OFSTED inspection and a visit by Home Office and Department for Education teams in 2017. We have also put extra resources into tackling and preventing CSE here and asking the government to give us further help.

“Following the 2016 inspection, OFSTED said: ‘Work with children and young people at risk of sexual exploitation is very strong. The local authority has been a champion for tackling this issue. It provides leadership to partner agencies, with who this work is well co-ordinated. Work to protect children who go missing from home or care is thorough and improving.

“’There is a strong commitment from the local authority and its partners to tackle child sexual exploitation... Consequently, young people receive comprehensive and well-coordinated services that make a positive difference,’” the statement added.

Cover-up

The revelations about Telford come almost four years after Professor Alexis Jay carried out an independent inquiry into CSE in Rotherham. Professor Jay found around 1,500 children were sexually exploited between 1997 and 2013.

A third of those children were known to social services as a result of child protection concerns and neglect and the report highlighted that victims were raped by multiple perpetrators, trafficked to other towns and cities in the north of England, abducted, beaten, and intimidated, doused in petrol and threatened with being set alight, threatened with guns and forced to witness brutally violent rapes and threatened they would be next if they told anyone.

Girls as young as 11 were raped by large numbers of male perpetrators and the majority of perpetrators were from an Asian background, as was the case in Telford. There were also suggestions of a cover-up as a report in 2002 which clearly outlined the problem in Rotherham was effectively suppressed because some senior officers disbelieved the data it contained.

Professor Jay made 15 recommendations in her report, calling for senior managers to ensure that there are up-to-date risk assessments on all children affected by CSE and for the numeric scoring tool to be kept under review. She added that a more strategic approach is required to protect looked after children who are sexually exploited and this should include the use of out-of-area placements.

‘Far from a new phenomenon’

Professor Jay currently chairs the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which was set up to examine the extent to which institutions and organisations in England and Wales have taken seriously their responsibility to protect children.

Those organisations covered by the Inquiry include local authorities, children’s homes, police, schools, hospitals, Crown Prosecution Service, the BBC, the immigration service, armed forces, churches, charities, regulators and other public and private institutions. It will also examine allegations of child sexual abuse involving well-known people, including people in the media, politics, and other aspects of public life.

Following Professor Jay’s report into Rotherham, Ofsted conducted a thematic review ‘It couldn’t happen here could it?’ in November 2014 which found that “until very recently, child sexual exploitation has not been treated as the priority that events in Rotherham and elsewhere strongly suggest it should have been”.

While Ofsted highlighted that child sexual exploitation was far from a new phenomenon, cases like Rotherham and Oxford had uncovered not only the previously hidden scale of the problem but also a particular pattern of abuse involving predominantly White British girls as victims and gangs of predominantly Asian heritage men as perpetrators.

Racism

After Professor Jay’s Rotherham report (and the more recent investigation into Telford) highlighted that professionals were scared of being accused of being racist, Ofsted insisted senior leaders must “show political and moral courage”.

“They must never allow misguided fears about offending cultural sensitivities to get in the way of confronting child sexual exploitation wherever it occurs,” added the Ofsted report.

Indeed the report highlighted that another issue was that some professionals had simply failed to properly apply child protection processes to young people at risk of being sexually exploited.

In authorities where child sexual exploitation has had a higher priority, the local strategy is better developed with links to other key strategies relating to issues like gangs, licensing and how personal, health and social education is being taught in schools. However, in too many instances, Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards had shown poor leadership in tackling CSE.

The report concluded that child sexual exploitation was something inspectors now focus on much more closely under the arrangements for inspecting local authority child protection and looked after children's services.

‘Tackling CSE can be done’

In fact, in September 2016, Ofsted alongside the Care Quality Commission and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation and HMI Probation carried out a Joint Targeted Area Inspection ‘Time to listen’ − a joined-up response to child sexual exploitation and missing children,  which had a ‘deep dive’ focus on CSE to examine how authorities were tackling CSE after the government published its ‘Tackling child sexual exploitation’ cross-government action plan in 2015.

“Tackling child sexual exploitation can be done,” was the report’s opening gambit praising evidence of progress being made in many local areas, which was resulting in better support for children at risk of, or subject to, child sexual exploitation.

“Political will and determination to drive improvements are in place and significant investment has been made in the development of services to tackle child sexual exploitation in spite of the climate of reduction in funding for some key agencies,” said the report. “All five areas inspected had strategies and plans in place to tackle child sexual exploitation but the impact of plans and strategic leadership in influencing frontline practice was too variable. It is crucial that local areas translate this strategic commitment into effective frontline practice.”

The report outlined that:

  • Where strategies and plans were effective, agencies were clear about their responsibilities.
  • In the majority of cases, professionals worked collaboratively to engage and work with children and families affected by child sexual exploitation.
  • Prevention and raising awareness in local communities was seen to be a real strength.

However, the joint inspection said, “there is no room for complacency”. “More can be done to ensure that all children and young people receive consistently good support from all agencies and in all areas,” it added.

‘CSE is not going away’

Some children had too many professionals involved with them and a lack of coordination, together with assessments that did not always consider all of the child’s needs meant that support for children was not always meaningful to them or meeting their needs.

The report outlined that responses to children missing require further development in most areas visited. The challenges for agencies, in particular the police and children’s social care, were evident but, the report said more needs to be done to enable the police and children’s social care to have a better understanding of the reasons why children go missing.

“We saw many good examples of effective joint working during the inspections. All agencies, including the police, children’s social care, health, youth offending services and the voluntary sector, must learn from these examples of good and effective practice. The challenge of tackling child sexual exploitation is not going away. Multi-agency systems within local areas must build on the strengths identified in this report so that all children get the services and support they need,” the report concluded.

The momentum gathered between 2014 and 2016 had seemed promising yet the latest investigation in Telford adds further evidence that systems are not in place nationally as they should be and the very same heinous crimes identified in Rotherham in the 2014 Jay report have come back to haunt us in the latest Telford investigation.

While the political will and services such as the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse led by Barnardo’s is undoubtedly crucial in helping local agencies to tackle the exploitation of young people, the latest revelations in Telford is proof enough that much more work is needed across the board to disrupt perpetrators, encourage joint working with agencies, improve training for all professionals working with children, raise awareness among the general public and working with vulnerable young people at risk of CSE to ensure that CSE is not only tackled, but eradicated.

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