Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham 1997 - 2013
No one knows the true scale of child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Rotherham over the years. Our conservative estimate is that approximately 1400 children were sexually exploited over the full Inquiry period, from 1997 to 2013.
In just over a third of cases, children affected by sexual exploitation were previously known to services because of child protection and neglect. It is hard to describe the appalling nature of the abuse that child victims suffered. They were raped by multiple perpetrators, trafficked to other towns and cities in the north of England, abducted, beaten, and intimidated. There were examples of children who had been doused in petrol and threatened with being set alight, threatened with guns, made to witness brutally violent rapes and threatened they would be next if they told anyone. Girls as young as 11 were raped by large numbers of male perpetrators.
This abuse is not confined to the past but continues to this day. In May 2014, the caseload of the specialist child sexual exploitation team was 51. More CSE cases were held by other children's social care teams. There were 16 looked after children who were identified by children’s social care as being at serious risk of sexual exploitation or having been sexually exploited. In 2013, the Police received 157 reports concerning child sexual exploitation in the Borough.
Over the first twelve years covered by this Inquiry, the collective failures of political and officer leadership were blatant. From the beginning, there was growing evidence that child sexual exploitation was a serious problem in Rotherham. This came from those working in residential care and from youth workers who knew the young people well.
Within social care, the scale and seriousness of the problem was underplayed by senior managers. At an operational level, the Police gave no priority to CSE, regarding many child victims with contempt and failing to act on their abuse as a crime. Further stark evidence came in 2002, 2003 and 2006 with three reports known to the Police and the Council, which could not have been clearer in their description of the situation in Rotherham. The first of these reports was effectively suppressed because some senior officers disbelieved the data it contained. This had led to suggestions of cover-up. The other two reports set out the links between child sexual exploitation and drugs, guns and criminality in the Borough. These reports were ignored and no action was taken to deal with the issues that were identified in them.
In the early 2000s, a small group of professionals from key agencies met and monitored large numbers of children known to be involved in CSE or at risk but their managers gave little help or support to their efforts. Some at a senior level in the Police and children's social care continued to think the extent of the problem, as described by youth workers, was exaggerated, and seemed intent on reducing the official numbers of children categorised as CSE. At an operational level, staff appeared to be overwhelmed by the numbers involved. There were improvements in the responseof management from about 2007 onwards. By 2009, the children's social care service was acutely understaffed and over stretched, struggling to cope with demand.
Seminars for elected members and senior officers in 2004-05 presented the abuse in the most explicit terms. After these events, nobody could say 'we didn't know'. In 2005, the present Council Leader chaired a group to take forward the issues, but there is no record of its meetings or conclusions, apart from one minute.
By far the majority of perpetrators were described as 'Asian' by victims, yet throughout the entire period, councillors did not engage directly with the Pakistani-heritage community to discuss how best they could jointly address the issue. Some councillors seemed to think it was a one-off problem, which they hoped would go away. 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.
In December 2009, the Minister of State for Children and Families put the Council's children’s safeguarding services into intervention, following an extremely critical Ofsted report. The Council was removed from intervention thirteen months later.
The Rotherham Safeguarding Children Board and its predecessor oversaw the development of good inter-agency policies and procedures applicable to CSE. The weakness in their approach was that members of the Safeguarding Board rarely checked whether these were being implemented or whether they were working. The challenge and scrutiny function of the Safeguarding Board and of the Council itself was lacking over several years at a time when it was most required.
In 2013, the Council Leader, who has held office since 2003, apologised for the quality of the Council's safeguarding services being less than it should have been before 2009. This apology should have been made years earlier, and the issue given the political leadership it needed.
There have been many improvements in the last four years by both the Council and the Police. The 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 child sexual exploitation. This works well but the team struggles to keep pace with the demands of its workload. The Council is facing particular challenges in dealing with increased financial pressures, which inevitably impact on frontline services. The Safeguarding Board has improved its response to child sexual exploitation and holds agencies to account with better systems for file audits and performance reporting. There are still matters for children’s social care to address such as good risk assessment, which is absent from too many cases, and there is not enough long-term support for the child victims.