Hundreds of girls may have been sexually exploited after authorities repeatedly failed to tackle grooming gangs responsible for “indescribably awful” abuse, a report has found.
As many as 373 children have been identified as potential victims in Oxfordshire over 16 years.
A highly critical serious case review published yesterday revealed that a catalogue of failings by authorities meant the scale of the child sexual exploitation (CSE) was not recognised and opportunities to tackle it were missed. Accounts of abuse were not taken seriously, under-age girls were seen as having “consented” and described in terms that suggested they were partly to blame for their ordeal.
As details emerged of the latest scandal, which follows similar revelations in other towns, David Cameron said children in Britain have suffered sexual abuse on an “industrial scale”.
The Prime Minister, whose Witney constituency is in West Oxfordshire, said the report should be a “wake-up call”.
Victims, who were mainly aged between 12 and 15, were groomed using drugs, alcohol and gifts before they were physically assaulted, forced into prostitution, raped and drugged. Their abusers kept them “hooked in” by making the girls dependent on alcohol and drugs, which they then “paid for” with sex.
Investigations of the response of organisations including Oxfordshire County Council and Thames Valley Police found victims were not believed or were thought to be exaggerating.
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Scores of professionals across a string of organisations or departments “took a long time to recognise CSE, used language that appeared at least in part to blame victims and see them as adults, and had a view that little could be done in the face of ‘no co-operation’.”
In one instance when a mother reported that her daughter was being persuaded to deal drugs, no investigation was carried out by police, while another parent was told it was “none of their business” when their child was missing. One girl who was at risk was described as “streetwise” and “wilful”.
The review was commissioned in 2012 after the activities of a paedophile ring emerged, and was founded on the experiences of six victims in that case, which led to the convictions of seven men.
Alan Bedford, the author of the independent review, wrote: “What happened to the child victims of the sexual exploitation in Oxfordshire was indescribably awful.
“The child victims and their families feel very let down. Their accounts are disturbing and chastening.”
Five of the seven perpetrators convicted over abuse in the county were of Pakistani heritage, while the victims were all white British girls.
The report said: “The association, not of all CSE but group-based CSE, with mainly Pakistan heritage is undeniable.”
However, the report said that there was “no evidence … of any agency not acting when they should have done because of racial sensitivities”.
Failures in the official response outlined in the 114-page report include:
• The “terrible” nature of victims’ experiences was not recognised because of a view that they were consenting or bringing problems on themselves;
• Girls were treated without common courtesy and subjected to “snide remarks”;
• There was an insufficient understanding of the law around consent and a tolerance of sexual activity with children;
• There was a lack of curiosity about what was happening to the girls;
• There was insufficient attention to investigating and disrupting the activities of perpetrators compared with efforts used to “contain” behaviour of the “difficult” girls.
In response to the question: “Could CSE have been identified or prevented earlier?”, the report said: “The simple answer is yes.”
Maggie Blyth, independent chair of the Oxfordshire Safeguarding Children Board, said the report was “the tip of an iceberg”. Sara Thornton, chief constable of Thames Valley Police, said the force was “ashamed” of its shortcomings.
Children suffered abuse on an industrial scale, says Cameron
Children in Britain have suffered sexual abuse on an “industrial scale” with the authorities failing to act, David Cameron said.
The Prime Minister called a Downing Street summit to address the issue following a series of child sexual exploitation scandals in areas including Rotherham and Oxfordshire.
He said too many people and organisations had been “walking on by” and failing to tackle the problem.
Senior public officials and councillors in England who fail to protect children from sexual exploitation will face up to five years in jail under a new criminal offence being considered by the government as part of the plan to ensure “this stops here”, Mr Cameron said.
Under the proposals unveiled by Mr Cameron and subject to consultation, the crime of “wilful neglect” will be extended to cover children’s social care and education, with unlimited fines for individuals and organisations shown to have let children down.
A new national helpline will be established to help professionals blow the whistle on failings in care for children. And senior staff who leave councils after abuse scandals could see their pay-offs clawed back if it is shown they failed to protect children for whom they had responsibility.
Mr Cameron said: “What I’m determined to do as Prime Minister is that we end the ‘walk on by’ culture that too many police forces and social work departments have demonstrated.”
The child protection summit brought together police, council chiefs, healthcare experts and ministers with victims of abuse and their representatives.
The summit was called in response to a series of damning reports of sexual exploitation of up to 1,400 children over many years in Rotherham and came as another inquiry found hundreds of girls may have been abused in Oxfordshire.
Child sex abuse has been prioritised as a “national threat”, like serious and organised crime, meaning police forces, chief constables and police and crime commissioners have a duty to collaborate with each other to safeguard children.
Addressing the meeting, Mr Cameron said: “The aim of today is to just take the first step to make sure we take all the actions across the police, across social services, across local authorities, to make sure we deal with this far, far better to stop it happening again in other areas.”
He continued: “I think it’s very important we take a step back and just recognise the horrific nature of what has happened in our country.
“Young girls – and they are young girls – being abused over and over again on an industrial scale, being raped, being passed from one bunch of perpetrators to another bunch of perpetrators.
“And all the while this has happened with too many organisations and too many people walking on by.
“And we have got to really resolve that this stops here, it doesn’t happen again and we recognise abuse for what it is.”
He called for a “massive dose of common sense” to be injected into the way the problem was tackled by the authorities.