20 Dec 2013

Rochdale sex abuse review: ‘failures of leadership’

A “catalogue of failures” by police, social workers and health professionals allowed sex-grooming gangs to flourish in Rochdale, an independent report finds.

The serious case review was launched by Rochdale Safeguarding Children’s Board after nine men were convicted of the systematic grooming and sexual abuse of white girls in Greater Manchester. It highlighted failures by 17 agencies who were meant to protect them.

The findings have resulted in an acknowledgement by Greater Manchester police that the force let down a number of vulnerable girls who were groomed by gangs for sexual abuse.

Five of six victims on whom the report focused were “clearly in need of early help and at times intervention” by safeguarding agencies for several years before they were abused, it added. But there was no properly co-ordinated package of support and assessment which recognised such risks as neglect, domestic violence, parental health problems and substance misuse.

The report added: “Given the highly organised, determined and manipulative behaviour of the perpetrators, it would be unrealistic to imagine that their behaviour could have been predicted and that all harm to all the young people they abused could have been prevented.

“However, had the sexual exploitation been recognised and responded to at the earliest stages, these young people may have been protected from repeat victimisation and other young people may also have been protected from becoming victims.”

Failure of agencies

Forty-seven victims were thought to have been abused by the Asian gang, who were given sentences totalling 77 years after Liverpool crown court heard how they had plied their victims with drink and drugs and “passed them around” for sex.

“The report paints a shocking picture of the inability of these agencies to protect these young people successfully,” said Jane Booth, chair of the safeguarding board.

Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk (Labour) said the report had “vindicated” his concerns about the way police dealt with the victims. But he said it was time to stop “endless inquiries and get on with the important work of change”.

He added: “The approach has been completely wrong. Senior police officers keep talking about deploying more resources, but they’re sending out untrained officers who cannot win the trust of victims. We need better leadership on this issue.”

‘Culture of hopelessness’

Sir Peter Fahy, chief constable of Greater Manchester police, said the report failed to confront a “fundamental” problem faced by police officers, who are repeatedly asked to track down and return young people missing from children’s homes, only for them to run away again. “It creates a culture of hopelessness, where the police officers think ‘what’s the point?’,” he said.

“We haven’t sorted out a solution to these really complex issues about young people.”

The danger of ‘colour blindness’

Race was also highlighted in the report, with agencies criticised for apparently never questioning why such a number of working-class white girls would have “friendships” with gangs of middle-aged Asian men. Police and local agencies have been reluctant to focus on the ethnicity of offenders in the town, which has a large Asian community.

But the report warned that a “colour-blind” approach was “potentially dangerous”. It said there was “no direct evidence” of what has been defined by some commentators as “political correctness” – an over-sensitivity about race leading to a conscious unwillingness to recognise or respond to the abusive actions of the men concerned because they were Asian.

But this approach itself “raises questions”, the report said.

It states: “In this particular context – the sexual abuse of young girls by men of a different ethnic background, in a community where there has at times been openly racist attitudes and confrontation between different groups – a completely ‘colour-blind’ approach, even if it existed, is potentially dangerous.”

The report said the fact that the grooming gang were Asian should not be discounted – but to say the mere fact that they are Asian explains the behaviour is unjust, offensive and dangerous. It said further analysis and research is needed as to what significance race and culture did or did not hold.

The Serious Case Review also concluded:

* Police, social workers, health workers and the Crown Prosecution Service failed to grasp the scale of child sexual exploitation.

* Lack of organisational priority over child sexual exploitation, an unstable duty and assessment team and a “chaotic” duty system.

* The authorities ‘struggled to empathise’ with the girls, partly because they were from ‘poor backgrounds’, giving them a ‘skewed picture of their behaviour’.

* GPs had explicit information that could have helped authorities “identify the possibility of sexual exploitation”.

Sentences for five men

The findings come as five men were sentenced for eight and a half years for sexually exploiting the “profound vulnerability” of a 15-year-old girl in Rochdale.

Many of her abusers plied her with vodka and cannabis before committing their offences, which took place in 2008 and 2009, Manchester Minshull Street crown court heard. Following their convictions, police apologised to the victim for failings in their initial probe into the defendants.

Judge Foster said the defendants had displayed “disturbing and worrying behaviour” but he did not regard them as dangerous. Before they were led to the cells, he told them all: “I hope, with these sentences, that you learn you must respect the dignity of all human beings, particularly the young and vulnerable.”

Both Greater Manchester Police and the CPS have apologised for missing chances to bring the gang to justice sooner.

GMP also launched an internal investigation, overseen by the police watchdog, into the conduct of a number of officers in the wake of the scandal.