Fear, apathy, and selfishness led civil authorities in an English borough to look the other way as hundreds of children were sexually abused, according a scathing report released this week. The report estimates between 1997 and 2013, as many as 1,400 children, mostly ages 11–16, were victimized first by their abusers, then by a child welfare system that knew about the problem but never took action.
The rampant child sexual exploitation in Rotherham has been public knowledge in England since about 2009, when the national minister of state for children and families intervened to improve child services in the borough. This week’s report, commissioned by the governing council of Rotherham, specifically highlights how police, child welfare authorities, and members of the borough’s governing council failed to protect the victims.
The report describes a pattern of abuse in which older men, many of them Asian, targeted foster children and children from broken homes. They picked them up outside schools or were introduced to them by other abuse victims. The abusers used gifts and affection to groom the children, who were then raped by multiple perpetrators and sometimes trafficked to nearby towns for sexual exploitation.
Between 1997 and 2009, police routinely ignored reports of child sexual exploitation (CSE), according to report author Alexis Jay. “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,” the report stated.
Neglect of the issue went beyond the police department, though. One researcher interviewed in the report went to the borough council in 2002 with evidence of widespread child abuse in the community. Officials there were unhappy with the report and said it exaggerated the facts. The researcher was subjected to “personalized hostility” and was not able to finish the project.
Jay’s report has British leaders and media asking over and over again, “How could this happen?” Sections of the report shed light on what Rotherham authorities were thinking as they looked the other way:
- Some police officers viewed the teenage female victims as promiscuous and the sexual encounters they had with adult males as consensual, therefore not criminal.
- Overworked police and child services workers did not always follow up on cases due to fear of increased workload.
- Many of the victims entered the system when their families reported them missing. But police viewed investigating missing persons cases as a waste of time.
- Child welfare workers felt as though their superiors wanted them to downplay the fact that most of the alleged perpetrators were Pakistani. They worried about being viewed as racist if they brought the problem to light.
- Bullying and sexual harassment were common among members and employees of the Rotherham Borough Council, contributing to the council’s insensitivity to the problem of child sexual exploitation.
In 2013, the leader of the Rotherham governing council formally apologized to the victims of sexual abuse in the borough. After the publication of Jay’s report, that leader resigned. Calls for more resignations, including that of the chief of police, are echoing through British media and government.
The report acknowledges that since 2009, Rotherham has seen improvements in its handling of child sex abuse cases. But more work needs to be done, including better interdepartment cooperation and staffing for agencies that handle reports of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham.
“Overall, the small number of prosecutions and convictions has been disproportionate to the numbers of children abused and the seriousness of the offenses committed against them,” the report stated.