Police officers and social care professionals suppressed or ignored evidence of child sexual abuse in Rotherham for more than a decade, an inquiry has found.
The independent investigation into child sexual exploitation (CSE) by Professor Alexis Jay revealed systemic council and police failings in the borough, where at least 1,400 children were found to have been subjected to appalling abuse between 1997 and 2013. Over a third of these victims were known to social care due to child protection and neglect concerns.
The inquiry found children as young as 11 were raped by multiple perpetrators, trafficked to other towns and cities in the north of England, made to witness violent rapes and even doused in petrol and threatened with being set alight. Yet evidence of such abuse was ‘disbelieved, suppressed or ignored’ for the first 12 years of the period investigated.
“Within social care, the scale and seriousness of the problem was underplayed by senior managers,” the report stated. “At an operational level, the police gave no priority to CSE, regarding many child victims with contempt and failing to act on their abuse.”
The investigation revealed that three reports identifying CSE as a major issue in Rotherham were ignored. Published between 2002 and 2006, the reports led to no changes or new procedures to tackle the problem.
The inquiry also identified “blatant” failures in the leadership of the council during this time and evidence of a culture that was, “likely to have impeded the council from providing an effective, corporate response to such a highly sensitive social problem as child sexual exploitation”. The environment at the council was described as macho, sexist and bullying.
Senior figures among the council and police were also widely perceived to be trying to ‘downplay’ the ethnic dimensions of CSE in the borough, the inquiry found. This left frontline staff confused as to what to say and do without appearing ‘racist’.
However the report did say “within the council, we found no evidence of children’s social care staff being influenced by concerns about the ethnic origins of suspected perpetrators when dealing with individual child protection cases, including CSE,” saying these concerns were due to a broader organisational context within the council. The council was criticised for ‘tiptoeing’ around the issue of discussing CSE with the Pakistani-heritage community, saying there was only two direct meetings in 15 years.
Following the inquiry’s publication, council leader Roger Stone announced he was stepping down with immediate effect.
Martin Kimber, chief executive of Rotherham council, said senior officers responsible for child safeguarding services during the critical periods no longer worked for the council. Kimber, who took over the role in 2009, said there has been an improvement in services from the council, which the report acknowledged.
“Police are now well resourced for CSE and well trained, though prosecutions remain low in number. There is a central team in children’s social care which works jointly with the police and deals with CSE,” it stated.
The report’s recommendations included that managers need to develop a more strategic approach to protecting looked-after children who are sexually exploited, and that the council makes every effort to restore open access and outreach work with children affected by CSE.
Speaking at a press conference today, Kimber said: ““We all have a responsibility to protect our young people from these predators, but it’s clear from today’s report that we, the council, and other agencies that worked with us failed in that duty for a significant amount of time.”
He added: “We will use the independent inquiry report…to make sure that the failings of Rotherham in the past don’t become failings of another town in the future.”