27 Aug 2014

Rotherham child abuse: the ethnic dimension

Despite victims’ description of most of their abusers as “Asian”, ethnicity was a factor that was not actively tackled by the authorities in Rotherham where over 1,400 children were subject to abuse.

Professor Alexis Jay’s report into child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Rotherham from 1997-2013, states that the issue of race, regardless of ethnic group, should be tackled as an absolute priority if it is known to be a significant factor in the criminal activity of organised abuse in any local community.

But, her report concludes: “There was little evidence of such action being taken in Rotherham in the earlier years.”

So why not?

The report noted: “Councillors can play an effective role in this, especially those representing the communities in question, but only if they act as facilitators of communication rather than barriers to it. One senior officer suggested that some influential Pakistani-heritage councillors in Rotherham had acted as barriers.”

Lack of engagement

It found that although “by far the majority” of perpetrators were described as Asian by victims,throughout the entire period, councillors did not engage directly with the Pakistani-heritage community to discuss how best they could jointly address the issue.

Responding to the findings, Children’s Commissioner Maggie Atkinson told BBC Radio 4 that the lack of contact with an ethnic community was problematic in itself: “It’s actually racist to think you know what they are feeling and how they’ll behave.”

In 2006 a report by Dr Angie Heal on violence and gun crime and its links with sexual exploitation and prostitution in South Yorkshire, found that “a number of workers in the town involved with the issue believed that one of the difficulties which prevented CSE being dealt with effectively was the ethnicity of the perpetrators”.

But this was not the first report that highlighted the ethnicity of those involved. A 2003 report by the same author found: “In Rotherham the local Asian community are reported to rarely speak about them [the perpetrators of sexual abuse].” The subject was taboo and local people were probably equally as frightened of the violent tendencies of the perpetrators as the young women they were abusing.

Dr Heal’s 2006 report described how the motivation of the men involved had now changed from personal gratification to seeking out “career and financial opportunities to young Asian men who got involved”.

In 2010 eight local men of Asian origin were tried on charges relating to four girls aged 12-16. Five were convicted.

Why wasn’t action taken?

So why did the local authorities not take more robust action to tackle the CSE problem in Rotherham?

The report notes that: “The Deputy Council Leader (2011-2014) from the Pakistani-heritage community was clear that he had not understood the scale of the CSE problem in Rotherham until 2013… He was one of the elected members who said they thought the criminal convictions in 2010 were a ‘one-off, isolated case’, and not an example of a more deep-rooted problem of Pakistani-heritage perpetrators targeting young white girls.”

It concludes: “This was at best naive, and at worst ignoring a politically inconvenient truth.”

On Wednesday, Police and Crime Commissioner Shaun Wright, who was responsible for childrens’ services in Rotherham from 2005 to 2010 when he was a Labour councillor, said that issues relating to culture and ethnicity had come as a “huge surprise” to him because he had not been made aware of the problems at the time.

Mr Wright refused calls for his resignation, despite being suspended from the Labour party.

Read more from Gary Gibbon: "It must be a question of time before Mr Wright takes the hint"

In August 2013 South Yorkshire Police set up Operation Clover. There are currently 12 officers investigating CSE in Rotherham – speaking to a number of people involved to determine if they were victims or witnesses. It is not know how many victims there are.

Fears of racism

The ethnicity of those involved in exploitative activity was known to workers on the ground, but the report found that “those who had involvement in CSE were acutely aware of these [ethnic] issues and recalled a general nervousness in the earlier years about discussing them, for fear of being thought racist”.

The reticence was not always self-imposed: “Several staff described their nervousness about identifying the ethnic origins of perpetrators for fear of being thought racist; others remembered clear direction from their managers not to do so.”

Professor Jay’s report concedes that concerns expressed by several councillors that raising the issue of ethnicity could be “giving oxygen” to racist perspectives that could attract extremist political groups and threaten community cohesion were valid to some extent, given the targeting of Rotherham by groups such as the English Defence League.

Journalist Andrew Norfolk, whose long-running Times newspaper investigation into CSE in Rotherham has triggered police and council investigations, wrote that “the council’s safeguarding children board tried to avoid making public a serious case review into the death of 17-year-old Laura Wilson. When forced to do so, it redacted the report, concealing information about the ethnicity of adults who had been suspected of grooming her for sex from the age of 11”.

Andrew Norfolk’s article also describes how the council chose, at some expense, to seek a high court injunction to ban the publication of information about care workers’ knowledge of Laura Wilson’s involvement with “Asian men”. The council reportedly dropped the action after the intervention of then education secretary Michael Gove.