More than a thousand children were sexually exploited over at least 30 years in Telford amid “shocking” police and council failings, an inquiry has concluded.
Unnecessary suffering and even deaths of children might have been avoided, had West Mercia Police (WMP) “done its most basic job” in acting on reports of such crime, according to findings published on Tuesday.
For decades child sexual exploitation (CSE) “thrived” in the Shropshire town and went “unchecked” because of failures to investigate offenders and protect children amid fears that probes into Asian men would “inflame racial tensions”.
Both the council and the police have apologised to the children affected.
Inquiry chairman Tom Crowther QC, who issued 47 recommendations for improvement, said the evidence revealed “appalling suffering of generations of children caused by the utter cruelty of those who committed child sexual exploitation”, adding: “Victims and survivors repeatedly told the inquiry how, when they were children, adult men worked to gain their trust before ruthlessly betraying that trust, treating them as sexual objects or commodities.
“Countless children were sexually assaulted and raped. They were deliberately humiliated and degraded. They were shared and trafficked. They were subjected to violence and their families were threatened.
“They lived in fear and their lives were forever changed.”
He said that “for decades CSE thrived in Telford unchecked” and agencies, including the council and WMP, were “aware of it in detail”, adding: “Failure by agencies to investigate emboldened offenders; failure to safeguard put children at risk.
“So far as both the council and WMP were concerned, a number of features appear to have contributed to this shocking failure to address CSE: a focus upon abuse within the family, at the expense of extra-familial exploitation; over-caution about acting in the absence of ‘hard evidence’ – a formal complaint from a child – about exploitation; and a nervousness that investigating concerns against Asian men, in particular, would inflame racial tensions.”
The chairman described a “culture of not investigating what was regarded as ‘child prostitution’ and said the force turned “a blind eye and chose not to see what was obvious”.
He said an absence of police action had emboldened offenders, and added: “It is impossible not to wonder how different the lives of those early 2000s victims of child sexual exploitation – and indeed many others unknown to this inquiry – may have been had WMP done its most basic job and acted upon these reports of crime.
“It is also impossible in my view, not to conclude that there was a real chance that unnecessary suffering and even deaths of children may have been avoided.”
He also criticised the “glaring failure on the part of a generation of Telford’s politicians” not to regard a child sexual exploitation response as an “essential service” in the period before 2016.
The inquiry laid bare how children were brainwashed for years by men who bought them alcohol, cigarettes and issued death threats – citing the murder of Lucy Lowe – if they tried to break free from the abuse.
The men, often taxi or food delivery drivers, would meet young girls on the street and persuade them to become their “girlfriend” in what was described as the “loverboy” method of sexual exploitation.
Children would be “pimped” out and taken to rooms in nightclubs, restaurants and takeaways and there was also evidence of a “rape house” in Wellington.
The report highlighted witness testimony suggesting Asian men were not targeted as part of investigations because it would have been “too politically incorrect”, with one saying police were found to have “dropped the case like a hot potato” if such complaints were made.
One witness claimed police were “frightened to question or challenge” because of the ethnicity of people involved amid fears they could be labelled as racist.
Mr Crowther found:
– More than a thousand Telford children were exploited “over decades” and obvious signs were “ignored”;
– Exploitation was “not investigated because of nervousness about race”;
– Information was not properly shared between agencies, with some bodies dismissing child exploitation as “child prostitution” and even blaming the children instead of the perpetrators;
– Teachers and youth workers were “discouraged from reporting child sexual exploitation”;
– Offenders were “emboldened” and exploitation “continued for years without concerted response”;
– Police and the council scaled down specialist teams to “virtual zero – to save money”.
Seven men were jailed in 2013 following Operation Chalice, a police probe into child prostitution in the Telford area.
In 2018, a Sunday Mirror investigation concluded that around 1,000 children could have been sexually exploited in the Shropshire town over a 40-year period, leading to calls for a public inquiry which was commissioned later that year by Telford and Wrekin Council.
In 2019, one of the seven prosecuted six years earlier was jailed alongside three other men for abusing a “helpless” young girl who was “passed around like a piece of meat”, sold for sex and raped.
The inquiry, which has taken three years to conclude, looked at allegations from 1989 to the present day but Mr Crowther said he had also spoken to victims whose experiences dated back to the 1970s.
He warned the “dreadful, life-altering crime has not gone away – in Telford or elsewhere – and it must remain high on the radar” of police and other public bodies.
Mr Crowther’s report highlighted figures which showed WMP received 172 referrals relating to child sexual exploitation in the first six months of 2020, representing a 54% increase compared with the same period in 2019.
Assistant Chief Constable Richard Cooper said: “While there were no findings of corruption, our actions fell far short of the help and protection you should have had from us, it was unacceptable, we let you down.
“It is important we now take time to reflect critically and carefully on the context of the report and the recommendations that have been made.”
The council said it was working “very hard” to provide “the best possible support for victims of this crime” and accepted the inquiry’s recommendations, many of which it is already acting on.
But West Mercia’s police and crime commissioner John Campion said he could not say with “absolute certainty” that child sex abuse in Telford would never happen again, adding: “This report will no doubt have people questioning their confidence in policing.”