IN a bijou café in a leafy suburb of Glasgow, Alexis Jay is sipping tea, but any suggestion she is relaxed would be misleading.
In the weeks since her damning report into the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal was published, the former chief social work adviser to the Scottish Government has scarcely had time to draw breath.
Not only has Jay been besieged by the world’s press, she has been summoned to meet a succession of public figures, including Home Secretary Theresa May and Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper. Now the demands on her time look set to increase. With child sexual exploitation rising up the political agenda, her expertise is being sought at Westminster, Holyrood and Stormont. And to cap it all, last month she was appointed as an expert adviser to the national child abuse inquiry being chaired by the Lord Mayor of London, Fiona Woolf.
A veteran of complex child abuse cases – as former chief inspector of social work in Scotland, she led the investigation into the Western Isles scandal in 2005 – Jay was unfazed by the scale of the Rotherham inquiry, which spanned 16 years, and involved accessing myriad paper and electronic files in a short, tight timescale.
But nothing prepared her for the systematic violence that had been meted out to victims who were beaten and doused in petrol to prevent them reporting their offenders to the police.
“There’s no question that for me the worst aspect of it, the most shocking aspect, was the torture and coercion and intimidation that accompanies this form of sexual abuse. It was really terrible,” she says.
Jay is an affable woman with a ready laugh, but even at a distance, there is no disguising the raw anger she feels over the “blatant failures” which led to the abuse of more than 1,400 young people being ignored by so many for so long.
Her greatest contempt is reserved for the police officers who viewed the girls as “scrubbers and tarts” making “lifestyle choices”.
Her voice rises as she tells of one officer who argued that a 12-year-old who had sex with five men should not be described as a victim of sexual abuse because she was “100 per cent consensual” in every case. “That attitude was deeply ingrained in Rotherham – not now, but for several years,” she says. “It was utterly wrong.”
But she is also scathing about the way in which “neglect” cases were prioritised over child sexual exploitation (CSE) cases because there were more of them.
“Child sexual exploitation may have accounted for only a small proportion of the total number of referrals, but when it came to the most dangerous and most serious forms of abuse it featured very highly,” she says.
Such a forthright attitude might come as a surprise from someone in Jay’s position if you hadn’t already read her report. What marks it out is the way she refuses to shrink from the horror of it all. There is no fudging or professional jargon, nor is there any attempt to underplay the failings of individuals. Instead, it describes in unflinching detail the way in which a succession of reports into CSE were dismissed and clearly states that, after 2005, “no one involved in child protection in Rotherham could say they didn’t know what was going on”.
Jay must have foreseen such comments would lead to the clamour for resignations that followed. Did that worry her?
“Too many official reports have obfuscated over the details,” she says. “I was determined, not to be sensational, but to be absolutely clear about the nature of the abuse and not protect the public or anybody else from knowing exactly what happened.”
She says her experience with the children at the centre of the Western Isles case – all of whom wanted the details of their abuse to be published – taught her the importance of being true to the victims’ experience, and also that she knew a lack of clarity could lead to the inquiry being discredited.
Of those – such as South Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner Shaun Wright – who fell on their swords, she says: “My priority was to fulfil the remit which included the request to identify who knew what when. I was not there to judge whether [people] should resign, but you couldn’t have this level of abuse without some people being questioned about their role and their responsibilities.”
On an individual level, Jay hopes her report will help survivors gain access to counselling services which have not previously been available. “This [kind of abuse] is often accompanied by self-loathing and guilt, by self-harm and suicidal episodes, and sometimes also by addiction because part of grooming has included introducing them to drugs and alcohol, so many survivors are going to need support throughout their lives,” she says.
More broadly, she hopes it will raise awareness of CSE and ensure those who are involved in child protection take effective action.
Jay concedes one of the most difficult aspects of the inquiry was tackling the issue of ethnicity (many of the offenders were from the Pakistani heritage community) but says it was important to demonstrate how a fear of being branded racist led to a failure to engage with that community.
Now her advice is being sought on everything from the need to scrutinise the effectiveness of protocols to the regulation of taxis and limousines (sometimes used to transport youngsters to their abusers).
The chair of the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children, based at Strathclyde University, she is glowing about the work the organisation does improving outcomes for vulnerable young people in children’s homes, foster care and in the community.
But with people queuing up to tap into her knowledge on CSE, it looks like she will be talking about the lessons of Rotherham for some time to come.