Scathing report finds ‘extensive failures’ in way child exploitation is tackled
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse found vulnerable children were routinely ignored, blamed, and even slapped with criminal records.
There are “extensive failures” in the way child sexual exploitation by criminal gangs is tackled, with police and authorities potentially downplaying the scale of abuse over concerns about negative publicity, a damning report has found.
Child victims – some of whom reported being raped, abused, and in one case forced to perform sex acts on a group of 23 men while held at gunpoint – were often blamed by authorities for the ordeals they suffered while some were even slapped with criminal records for offences closely linked to their sexual exploitation.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) said there was “a flawed assumption” that child sexual exploitation was “on the wane”, with councils and police forces denying the scale of the problem, despite evidence to the contrary.
The report concluded this might be down to a determination to assure they are not seen as “another Rochdale or Rotherham” – towns blighted by recent child sexual exploitation revelations – rather than a desire to “root out … and expose its scale”.
Professor Alexis Jay, who chaired the inquiry, said: “The sexual exploitation of children by networks is not a rare phenomenon confined to a small number of areas with high-profile criminal cases.
“We found extensive failures by local authorities and police forces in the ways in which they tackled this sexual abuse.
“There appeared to be a flawed assumption that child sexual exploitation was on the wane, however it has become even more of a hidden problem and increasingly underestimated.”
The report, the 18th from the IICSA since it was established, featured harrowing testimony from more than 30 young witnesses across six case study areas – Bristol, Durham, St Helens, Swansea, Tower Hamlets and Warwickshire.
The inquiry team said it “did not receive a reliable picture of child sexual exploitation” from these areas, with the data often “confused and confusing”.
It said there was evidence of child sexual exploitation by networks in all six areas, but that the relevant police forces were “generally not able to provide any evidence about these networks”.
Two areas – Swansea and Tower Hamlets – said there was no data to suggest there had been any child exploitation by gangs, despite evidence to the contrary.
John O’Brien, secretary to the inquiry, said this claim went down “badly” with the IISCA panel.
He told the PA news agency: “This lack of recording data properly means at the fundamental level none of the authorities … could look you in the eye and say: ‘We understand the scale and nature of abuse in our area, and we are putting in place the right mechanisms to both prosecute those who are responsible and give the right support to those who are victims’.”
The report concluded: “It was clear from the evidence that none of the police forces or local authorities in the case study areas in this investigation had an accurate understanding of networks sexually exploiting children in their area.”
There were also examples of victim-blaming, the report found, with children being described as “promiscuous” and “putting themselves at risk” in referrals to a support charity in St Helens. Similar language about victims’ behaviour was reflected across the inquiry.
In Swansea, a child was described on official paperwork as having had “sexual partners from the age of 11” – this is despite children under the age of 13 not being considered by law to be able or competent to give consent to sexual activity.
Victims, many of whom had a history of self-harm and running away from home, repeatedly described how their allegations against their perpetrators were routinely dismissed by police.
In some cases, children were even landed with criminal records.
In one case, a girl abused from the age of 12 described how she was convicted of several offences including possession of a weapon after chasing her abuser with a bread knife after he assaulted her.
Mr O’Brien said a “culture shift” was required, adding: “All organisations in this need to see the victim in this, not the crime.”
The report said: “The prospect of receiving a criminal conviction may deter children from disclosing child sexual exploitation, and indeed may serve to increase the hold that perpetrators have over their victims.
“The focus should be on investigating the criminal conduct of sexual exploitation, not sanctioning children for what is frequently low-level antisocial behaviour.”
The report said senior leaders within local authorities and police forces must take the lead on “eradicating attitudes and behaviours which suggest that children who are victims of exploitation are in some way responsible for it”.
It identified a number of recommendations including a requirement for police forces and local authorities to collect specific data on all cases of known or suspected child sexual exploitation, including by criminal gangs and organised networks.
The final overarching IICSA report, taking in all 19 strands of the inquiry such as investigations into abuse in Westminster and the church, is expected to be laid before Parliament later this year.