Oxford sex abuse case highlights social work and police failings

Oxfordshire council says a range of measures have been taken to improve its response to sexual exploitation - including a joint abuse team with police and a £1.4m investment in child protection

Social workers in Oxfordshire have apologised for failing to safeguard a number of young girls from years of sexual abuse and exploitation.

The failings came to light during the trial of an Oxford gang, which saw seven men convicted of a string of child sexual offences, including rape and child trafficking.

The girls involved in the trial were all in care, or became known to social workers or looked-after as a result of issues relating to the sexual abuse they were suffering, such as going missing and drug use. But police say the full number of victims could be as many as 50.

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Joanna Simons, chief executive of Oxfordshire council, paid tribute to the girls’ bravery and apologised that the authority was not able to stop the abuse any sooner.

“We were up against a gang of devious criminals. The girls thought they were their friends,” she said. “We did not know the nature of what was happening – the devious nature of such depravity. We did not know we were dealing with a gang.”

Serious case review and further investment

A serious case review, led by a child protection barrister and to be published in due course, will review practice for all agencies. The council said it will act on its findings.

The council confirmed action has been taken to improve future responses. This includes additional training for 2,500 staff members, a joint sexual exploitation team with Thames Valley Police and a £1.4m investment in child protection, with 20 social workers recruited.

In a document released yesterday, the authority set out the measures social workers did take to try and protect girls between 2005, when the first evidence was presented, until 2010, when the council began to make links between girls and an organised group.

Following this, police and senior managers worked together to take action. Two senior social care managers from the council were seconded to the police and became part of the Operation Bullfinch investigation team.

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Social work action between 2005 and 2010

The measures social workers and care workers took included:

• Banning girls from having a mobile phone, or removing it at evenings and weekends
• Preventing girls from using social networking sites, where abusers could contact them
• Fitting limiters to windows in children’s homes to prevent girls leaving
• Using out-of-county placements to distance girls from the men they were meeting
• Using secure accommodation to create further distance between girls and abusers
• Following girls if they left children’s homes and trying to persuade them to return
• Attending addresses where they knew or suspected girls were
• Trying to persuade and support girls to make complaints against abusers
• Passing information on about an underage relationship, which led to a conviction
• Working with girls to help them understand why the relationships were inappropriate

Two of the children’s homes in which some of the girls lived have closed since 2005. The council had informed inspectors of concerns about one of the homes.

Low rate of convictions in sex abuse cases

The trial, which took place at the Old Bailey, follows other high profile sexual exploitation investigations in Derby, Rochdale and Telford. Yet a survey of Barnardo’s services in England and Wales, published this week, revealed just how difficult it is to secure convictions in sexual exploitation cases.

During 2012, of 56 known police investigations, only 15 resulted in prosecutions so far. Of these 15 prosecutions only six have so far brought about successful convictions.

Anne Marie Carrie, chief executive of Barnardo’s, said: “Our services know all too well the difficulties involved in getting cases of child sexual exploitation to court; but these shocking statistics starkly demonstrate just how hard it is.

“If we want victims to have confidence in the law it is vital that justice is done and that we work together to bring about more successful prosecutions for these crimes.”

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