‘Rotherham-style’ child abuse in Scotland probed

INVESTIGATION: Police inquiry into sexual exploitation of children in Glasgow mirrors the scandal in England, writes Dani Garavelli

Police in Scotland are investigating child abuse allegations with striking parallels to cases in Rotherham. Picture: Robert Perry

POLICE are investigating the sexual exploitation of vulnerable children in Scotland by men from ethnic minorities in ­cases that bear striking ­similarities to the organised abuse of youngsters in Rotherham, Scotland on ­Sunday can reveal.

Detectives have launched two operations into the abuse of vulnerable teenagers, some of whom absconded from children’s homes, in Glasgow.

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The first, Operation Cotswold, set up in 2011, focused on a group of Middle Eastern asylum seekers in the north of the city. At least 26 potential victims were identified and files were sent to the procurator-fiscal, but no prosecutions were brought.

It is understood vulnerable young girls were found in the home of one or more suspects, but many identified as at risk did not see themselves as victims and were reluctant to co-operate, making it difficult to gather evidence and get the case to court.

In February 2013, after Operation Cotswold ended, the police launched Operation Dash, a broader attempt to root out child sexual exploitation (CSE) across the Strathclyde police area. Officers worked in partnership with the charity Barnardo’s Scotland to gather intelligence.

Scotland on Sunday understands that, as a result, a number of fast-food outlets and taxi services were linked to CSE and a number of suspected perpetrators, many Asian, were targeted in a criminal investigation. Operation Dash is ongoing and there are live proceedings. It is understood at least one case involves multiple alleged offenders.

Detective Chief Superintendent Lesley Boal confirmed: “As a result of [Operation Cotswold] a number of individuals were the subject of investigation and subsequent learning from that operation has informed the further work we have undertaken in the area of CSE.

“Operation Dash remains a live ongoing criminal investigation that has resulted, so far, in 21 persons being reported to COPFS [Crown Office and Procurator-Fiscal Service] in relation to a range of crimes and there are live ongoing criminal proceedings in a number of cases.”

The revelation about CSE in Scotland comes days after a damning report found a blatant failure of police and political leadership had allowed 1,400 girls from Rotherham to be sexually exploited by Asian men over a 16-year-period.

Report author Professor Alexis Jay, former chief social work adviser to the Scottish Government, said children as young as 11 had been raped by a number of different men, abducted, beaten and trafficked to other north of England towns. Some had been doused in petrol, set alight, and threatened with guns.

The report revealed the abuse, much of which centred around fast-food outlets and taxi services, had been flagged up to the authorities in three separate reports from 2002 onwards, but that the information they contained was either suppressed, downplayed or ignored. The report also said council staff feared being branded racist by flagging up the ethnicity of the offenders in a town where 8 per cent of the 260,000 population were from black and ethnic minority backgrounds.

Though there is no evidence the problem is as entrenched in Scottish towns or cities, those who work with vulnerable teenagers say CSE is being carried out by groups of men from ethnic minority communities in a similar way to Rotherham.

Now questions are being raised as to whether more could have been done to tackle CSE north of the Border.

Director of Barnardo’s Scotland Martin Crewe says the charity has been pushing for years to get the authorities to take the issue more seriously. Though he is confident police in Scotland now regard CSE as a priority, he said there were concerns over whether the Crown Office was pursuing prosecutions with “sufficient vigour”. He said the charity had been pushing police to make more use of the powers under the 2005 Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences Act (although he had reservations about its effectiveness).

“The Crown Office have to work to a system of: ‘Is this likely to be a successful prosecution?’” he said. “In some instances what they would say is ‘these aren’t very credible witnesses, they are not going to be good under cross-examination’ which is probably true but we should look at the system and ask how we can make the evidence-gathering from vulnerable witnesses better.”

Yesterday, shadow justice secretary Graeme Pearson said he would like to see any questions over CSE cases in Scotland addressed as part of an overarching child sex abuse inquiry. “Because many of the victims [in CSE cases] come from vulnerable backgrounds their voices haven’t been heard with the same power as might be the case in other circumstances,” he said.

“It seems from what they are describing in Rotherham that victims are almost overlooked. As a result the investigations and the need for care is almost forgotten. For far too long these issues haven’t been treated seriously enough by many of the authorities.”

Since the Rotherham report was published last week, critics have suggested too much emphasis has been placed on race and not enough on how victims were treated as “spoiled goods” by almost every­one involved. Sensitivity around the ethnicity of the offenders meant child protection agencies also failed to engage with the Pakistani-heritage community and elicit its support.

After white teenager Kriss Donald was murdered by a group of Pakistani men in Pollokshields in 2004, Glasgow city councillor Bashir Maan said cultural sensitivities had allowed the activities of Asian gangs to go unchecked.

While acknowledging CSE existed in all communities, Crewe said agencies should not “duck away” from the facts. “Whether it is in Rotherham or Scotland, if we identify that ethnic minorities are involved in child sexual exploitation, we don’t have to interpret it, we have to deal with it,” he said.

Crewe said the Jay report showed agencies in Rotherham knew what was going on, but failed to act and that it should serve as a wake-up call north of the Border. “There’s still a bit of a sense that all of these cases that have hit the headlines – Rochdale, Derby, Rotherham – are in England and maybe it’s a bit different up here. Only when one of these major stories breaks in Scotland will people realise it has been going on; that there isn’t anything fundamentally different here.”

All three English CSE scandals had a similar pattern: teenage girls – mostly from troubled backgrounds – were targeted outside schools or in the streets. Given alcohol, cigarettes and other gifts to lure them in, many believed themselves to be in a relationship with the men who abused them. But before long, they were being passed round to other men within the network. They were tracked with mobile phones, encouraged to bring along their friends and, if they tried to get away or report abuse, they were threatened and assaulted.

In Rotherham more than a third of victims were known to social services. Almost as shocking as the abuse was the way in which the Labour-led council and South Yorkshire Police colluded in downplaying the problem which was first noticed by the front-line charity Risky Business in the late 1990s. Three reports in 2002, 2003 and 2005 highlighted the scale of the abuse, teachers voiced their concerns over girls being picked up at the gates by older men and the Times started running stories about CSE in the town. Jay says that by 2005, when a seminar was held for all council members, no-one involved in child protection in Rotherham could claim not to have known what was going on, yet still the authorities dragged their heels.

Only in 2009 – after the council was served with an improvement notice for its children’s safeguarding services – did police and council leaders begin to take the issue seriously. In 2010, five men from Rotherham’s Asian community were convicted of offences against teenage girls.

Despite this, few of those involved in the Rotherham scandal have been held accountable for their failings. Labour council leader Roger Stone has resigned, but chief executive Martin Kimber is staying put.

Shaun Wright, the council cabinet member responsible for children’s services in Rotherham from 2005 to 2010, has resigned from the party but is refusing to step down as police and crime commissioner.

As CSE scandals have broken elsewhere, police, child protection agencies and the Scottish Government have made its investigation a priority. Yet until recently little research had been carried out north of the Border.

In 2011, the Scottish Government asked academics at the University of Bedfordshire to report on the scale and nature of the problem. Professor Jenny Pearce, director of the university’s International Centre: researching child sexual exploitation, violence and trafficking, who co-authored the report, told Scotland on Sunday that, though CSE could affect young people from any socio-economic group, it was most prevalent in areas of high deprivation, where there was a normalisation of violence (such as a gang culture) and an acceptance that young people would earn their income through the informal economy. Since all those conditions applied to parts of Scotland, she said it was almost inevitable it was happening here.

In 2012, the charity Roshni, which campaigns on ethnic minority issues, held a conference on CSE in Glasgow and last year the government launched an inquiry into CSE.

After taking evidence, the government backed the setting up of a national working group and the development of a national CSE strategy. The chairs of several child protection committees have already contacted Jay to ask her to speak to their members and lessons learned from Operation Cotswold are being used to inform future investigations. Lesley Boal said: “Police Scotland works nationally to support the Scottish Government’s action plan on CSE and we have developed a Police Scotland action plan to complement this. In addition at a local level we have created 14 divisional public protection units that work in partnership with local authorities and health through child protection committees to tackle all forms of child abuse including CSE.

“Police Scotland is working on developing a problem ­profile on CSE which will establish a more detailed understanding of the issue and the scale of the problem.”

Yet Crewe said he believed vulnerable children were still being exposed to unnecessary risk in Scotland because of underlying attitudes about troubled teenagers, particularly those in residential care. “There are lots of concerns about historical abuse and how children who were locked up were abused by adults, but in some units we have almost got the opposite [problem] now,” he said. “The unit isn’t locked up and children can and do run away of a night, and we strongly suspect they are going into risky situations.

“Our service in Glasgow has returned vulnerable children to residential units, yet before the worker has driven away the kid has been out of the door again. The attitude seems to be ‘our children go missing overnight. It’s unfortunate, but it happens’. But that is a failure to provide safety for those children.”

Crewe said agencies needed to be more proactive with sexually active children. “Some of the attitudes are deeply shocking,” he said. “If a 15-year-old girl has repeated incidents of sexually transmitted infections, at what point do we say this might be linked to inappropriate behaviour? We shouldn’t turn a blind eye and say ‘in a couple of years’ time she will be over the age of consent’.”

Roshni campaigners are also concerned the emphasis on the exploitation of vulnerable white girls means ethnic minority victims are being overlooked. “These girls might not be abused through having been picked up at takeaways or taxi firms, it’s more likely to be within the home,” head of projects Anela Anwar said. “Abuse is hidden within ethnic minority communities because of issues around honour and shame.”

Pearce said securing convictions was important, but couldn’t solve the CSE problem as it only takes a handful of offenders out for a short time. After they serve their time they return to their victims. “We need to be empowering women from [ethnic minority] communities, who understand the way the abuse is perpetrated, to work with us to prevent it,” she said.