Child sexual exploitation and the response to localised grooming - Home Affairs Committee Contents

1  Introduction

1. In January 2011, The Times published an article about a number of prosecutions in northern towns and cities where girls under the age of 16 had been subjected to sexual assaults by men whom they had met locally. They met them in places such as shopping centres, arcades, parks or even on the street. The phenomenon was labelled "localised (or on-street) grooming". The article highlighted that in many cases, the defendants were Asian or British Asian and the victims were White. The article was controversial, particularly around the question of whether the perpetrators' ethnic origin was a significant factor in these cases.

2. In May 2012, nine men were found guilty of offences relating to a localised grooming network based in Rochdale. Newspaper articles reported that fifty-six men had been interviewed by police regarding an investigation in to the sexual abuse of forty-seven girls aged between 12 and 16.[1] One of the five victims had been placed in a residential care home in Rochdale by another Local Authority. Concerns were raised that the care system was failing those vulnerable children it was designed to support. A further report referred to a police officer yawning during a recorded interview discussing a sexual attack on one of the victims.[2] Finally, it emerged that the CPS had originally decided not to prosecute, because of doubts about the victims' credibility as witnesses The prosecution only went ahead when this decision was reversed by the Chief Prosecutor for the North-West of England, Nazir Afzal, following his review of the case.

3. The Rochdale case quickly came to epitomise the wider phenomenon of localised grooming in the eyes of many people:

a)  it involved a large network of suspected abusers and also a large number of potential victims;

b)  the victims were generally (though not invariably) vulnerable girls aged 12-16, a disproportionate number of whom were looked after by local authorities;

c)  victims were passed around from one abuser to another, in some cases being taken to other towns and cities to be raped and sexually assaulted;

d)  the abusers were Asian or British Asian and the victims were White;

e)  the victims were not always taken as seriously as they should have been by the police and prosecutors, who were often unfamiliar with the phenomenon of sexual exploitation of children; and

f)  prosecution was hampered by prosecutors' assessment that these victims would lack credibility in court.

4. In June 2012, we started taking evidence on the issue of localised grooming. We would like to thank those who assisted us with this year-long inquiry. We have taken evidence from a wide range of witnesses including those involved with investigations and prosecutions in to localised grooming, those involved in social care, representatives of third sector organisations, victims, the Children's Commissioner and Ministers. We are particularly grateful to Andrew Norfolk, chief investigative reporter of The Times whose articles have done much to reveal the true extent of the suffering of victims at the hands of both their abusers and of failing agencies. We congratulate him on receiving the Orwell Prize for Journalism for his work on this subject and consider that it is fully deserved. We would also like to thank Emma Jackson, who gave evidence to us about her own experience of being exploited by a group.[3] Her bravery, her eloquence and her dedication to improving the understanding of how and why localised grooming takes place commands respect.

5. In May 2013, a year after the Rochdale verdict, seven men from Oxford were convicted of offences relating to child sexual exploitation at the Old Bailey in London. The offences, which had taken place from 2004 to 2011, included rape, arranging child prosecution, sexual activity with a child and trafficking a child within the UK for sexual exploitation. Once again, the victims were vulnerable, White British girls and the offenders were mainly of Pakistani heritage. The victims had frequently gone missing from home and several had been exploited whilst in the care of Oxfordshire Social Services. The victims or their families had approached social services and police for help at several points in the past and accusations had previously been made to police about some of the offenders. No connection was made between any of the individual complaints until 2010. A serious case review is underway to establish how such serious, widespread abuse could have gone on so long without effective intervention.

Child Sexual Exploitation: scale and prevalence

6. The phenomenon of child sexual abuse has only been fully recognised in the relatively recent past.[4] Over the years there has been a change in the perception of child sexual exploitation—for many years the idea of 'stranger danger', that children were most at risk from predatory paedophiles not known to them, held sway. Later on, it was recognised that intra-familial abuse or abuse by an adult known to the family was more common than abuse by a stranger. However, the growth of the internet, and in particular social media which are popular among children, has created a new form of 'stranger danger', in the form of on-line grooming, and awareness has been raised about the need to keep children safe online. Localised grooming, the subject of this Report, has been recognised only very recently, in the wake of the Operation Retriever case (see below).

7. The Department for Education defines Child Sexual Exploitation as

    a form of child abuse ("child" being defined as anyone under 18 years of age). It can manifest itself in different ways but essentially involves children and young people receiving something—for example, accommodation, drugs, gifts, or affection—as a result of them performing sexual activities, or having others perform sexual activities on them. It can occur without physical contact, when children are groomed to post sexual images of themselves on the internet.

    In all cases those exploiting the child or young person have power over them, perhaps by virtue of their age or physical strength. Exploitative relationships are characterised in the main by the child's limited availability of choice, compounding their vulnerability. This inequality can take many forms but the most obvious include fear, deception, coercion and violence.[5]

8. Localised grooming, for the purposes of this Report, is a model of child sexual exploitation in which a group of abusers target vulnerable children, including, but not confined to, those who are looked after by a local authority. The group typically makes initial contact with victims in a public place such as a park, cinema, on the street or at a friend's house. The children are offered gifts and treats—takeaway food, sweets, cigarettes, alcohol or drugs—in exchange for sex, sometimes with dozens of men on the same occasion. There will often be occasions where they are missing from home although such times may be less than 24 hours. The children sometimes identify one offender as a 'boyfriend', and might regard the sexual abuse by multiple offenders as 'normal'. The gangs sometimes use younger men or boys to make the initial approach, reinforcing the misapprehension that the children are involved in consensual relationships with partners of a similar age. In a number of cases, victims are internally trafficked within the UK, being taken to other towns for the express purpose of being 'given' or 'sold' for sexual exploitation.[6]

9. The awareness of this model of child sexual exploitation has increased significantly and before The Times article appeared in recent years. In November 2010, nine men were convicted of 70 offences against girls aged 12-18 including rape, false imprisonment, sexual assault, sexual activity with a child, perverting the course of justice, and aiding and abetting rape. Twenty-seven girls in total had come forward to say that they had been victims of the group and convictions were secured for offences against 15 of them. The prosecutions followed an undercover operation by Derbyshire Police, Operation Retriever. Derbyshire Police described the case as 'the most horrendous case of sexual exploitation they had ever faced' and said they were shocked at the scale of abuse.[7] Operation Retriever and the subsequent trial are often cited as the starting point for the growing awareness of localised grooming.[8]

10. In January 2011 Barnardo's published a report entitled 'Puppet on a string' which looked at child sexual exploitation. The report noted a worrying trend that the grooming of children for sexual exploitation was becoming more sophisticated. Children were being "brainwashed by abusers in the most pernicious way ... often transported between towns and cities to be subjected to multiple acts of abuse by groups of men".[9] In June 2011 a thematic assessment by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) highlighted the growing awareness of the issue of localised grooming.

    'Localised grooming' has been subject to considerable media attention following a number of prosecutions of adult males for the grooming and sexually exploitation of children and young people in various towns and cities in the UK. Several NGOs have reported that large numbers of victims of this type of child sexual exploitation have accessed their services across the UK. However, there have been comparatively few prosecutions, and there is a general lack of knowledge of grooming and sexual exploitation in the UK and the threats posed to children and young people.[10]

The main conclusions of the CEOP assessment were:

  • In most areas of the UK there had not been a proactive approach to tackling this type of sexual exploitation, but where police, children's services and the voluntary sector had worked together, offenders had been held to account and victims identified and supported.
  • The majority of Local Safeguarding Children Boards were not fulfilling their responsibilities as prescribed in statutory guidance.
  • All agencies need to improve their ability to recognise exploitation to enable them to intervene early.
  • A commitment to multi-agency working would be key to tackling localised grooming.
  • The research did not find any consistent patterns connected to culture or ethnicity in the profile of offenders.[11]

11. In July 2012, the Howard League for Penal Reform published a report which noted that victims of child sexual exploitation were 2.5 times more likely than average to have a criminal record. The report linked their offending behaviour directly to the sexual exploitation and questioned why these victims were being punished instead of being helped.[12] In October 2012, ChildLine published a report which provided an insight into the contacts it had from young people who had been sexually exploited through grooming, both in online and face-to-face situations. It noted a number of features which were typical of grooming offences, and which could prevent the problem being identified and addressed:

  • Victims might see the situation as a genuine relationship and the groomer as a "boyfriend".[13]
  • The offender typically plays on the victim's insecurities, making them feel "special" or "loved".[14]
  • The victim might nonetheless feel ashamed of the sexual activity itself, or of ancillary activities such as the consumption of drugs or alcohol, further increasing their reluctance to come forward.[15]
  • Grooming might extend to befriending the child's family or carers, so the victim feels unable to tell them about the situation.[16]
  • Adults may misunderstand the grooming process and assume that the young person was a willing participant in a relationship, rather than the victim of sexual abuse. This can further amplify the victim's sense of shame.[17]
  • About 60% of calls to ChildLine which relate to grooming relate to on-line grooming; 40% involve face-to-face interactions.[18]

12. In November 2012, the House of Commons Education Committee produced a report which looked at the Child Protection System in England. It noted that many of those involved in child protection considered older children to be less vulnerable than those under five.[19] The report cited Ofsted's view that older children are often in contact with a wider range of agencies than younger ones (for whom it is mainly health):

    children's social care, health, the police and education, practitioners from the Connexions service, the Youth Offending service, the Probation service, drug and alcohol misuse services, leaving care services, housing, and CAMHS may all be involved. Commonly, young people 'bounced' around the system, with no one agency taking overall responsibility for their welfare or holding a comprehensive understanding of their needs.[20]

The Select Committee found evidence that these children were vulnerable to 'specialised' forms of abuse such as child sexual exploitation as those involved in child protection were more used to dealing with cases of familial abuse[21] and so the recognition of localised grooming as a form of abuse was not recognised by professionals. They were therefore unable to piece together the different parts of a puzzle in order to create a clear picture of what was happening.[22]

13. In October 2011 the Office of the Children's Commissioner launched a two-year inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups (CSEGG) The inquiry has already produced two reports. The first was an 'accelerated report' specifically addressing the extent to which children in residential care are affected by localised grooming, which was requested by the Secretary of State for Education following the convictions of the Rochdale men in May 2012. The second was an interim report, which detailed the scale of the problem and made a number of recommendations. The final report is due to be published in autumn 2013.

14. The accelerated report, published in July 2012 found that although the majority of victims of child sexual exploitation lived at home with their families, those in care were disproportionately represented. It was found that victims were more likely to be exploited if they were living in care homes than if they were in foster families.[23] The accelerated report made a number of recommendations:

  • Government should undertake a thorough examination of residential care, including the profile of children, location and type of homes, recruitment, qualification and training of staff, and analyses of how local authorities are meeting their duties under the sufficiency requirements.
  • A child's care plan should include a safety plan when the child/young person is at risk of or has experienced sexual exploitation. This should be based on a thorough assessment of need and explicitly address the risks the child faces, be negotiated with the child and engage family, supporting adults and, as appropriate, the police.
  • Regulations should prohibit any child in care, or leaving care, from being placed in bed and breakfast accommodation.
  • Monthly inspection visits to private children's homes should be by a person independent of the organisation running the home and appointed or approved by the local authority.
  • Consideration should be given to current planning regulations in relation to children's homes to ensure that children's homes are not opened in areas that present a high risk to the children being placed, including checks on numbers of registered sex offenders in the area.
  • Ofsted should be allowed to routinely share its information about the location of children's homes with the police.
  • All references in Guidance and Regulation to 'prostitution' when speaking of children should be amended to 'child sexual exploitation'.[24]
  • The requirement for authorities to notify the area authority where a child is to be placed could be strengthened by requiring the placing authority to consult with the area authority to assist their assessment that the placement is the most appropriate placement available and that it will meet the child's needs identified in the care plan. This would enable the placing authority to establish, for example, if there is known intelligence locally of sexual exploitation associated with the children's home or local area.
  • Consideration should be given, in the National Child Sexual Exploitation Action Plan, to the role of Local Safeguarding Children's Boards in having oversight of:
    • (i)  The relationships between police and local authority children's homes in the local area, so that intelligence about groups of exploiters in the area and support to staff and young people can be provided
    • (ii)  Children who go missing and children at risk of or who have experienced exploitation: ensuring analysis of information gathered through Runaway Children and Missing From Care (RCMFC) records.
  • When children have run away from care, all return interviews should involve an independent person, preferably an advocate or trusted adult from outside the home. These should enable young people to talk about any concerns including about the home. The content should feed into local police intelligence about sexual exploitation. Police 'safe and well' interviews should be considered as well - with the young person's agreement.
  • A child's Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) should be informed when children run away and consider bringing forward the review. The IRO service should be informed about the pattern of absences or running away by children in care.[25]

15. The interim report, published in November 2012, found that at least 16,500 children were identified as being at risk of child sexual exploitation during one year and 2,409 children were confirmed as victims of sexual exploitation in gangs and groups during the 14-month period from August 2010 to October 2011, although it warned that the scale of abuse was likely to be much larger.[26] The report highlighted a number of issues, including the reluctance on the part of official agencies to share data, inconsistent recording of data, with different agencies using a range of methods across the country,[27] and worrying assumptions about the ability of many victims to 'consent' to their exploitation.[28] The report emphasised the need for all professionals who come into contact with children and young people—police, teachers, social services and health services—to be aware of the signs of sexual exploitation, for agencies to work co-operatively together, and for reliable intelligence-gathering and information-sharing between agencies.[29]

16. The interim report provides the clearest indication of the scale of child sexual exploitation. However, the Deputy Children's Commissioner has emphasised that, due to a lack of response for requests for data from several local authorities and agencies, the estimate that 16,500 children were at risk of child sexual exploitation during one year, and 2,409 children were confirmed as victims of sexual exploitation in gangs and groups during the 14-month period from August 2010 to October 2011, needs to be reinforced by robust data gathering and may well turn out to be an understatement.[30] When talking about the scale of child sexual exploitation, Sue Berelowitz told us that "there is not a town, village or hamlet in which children are not being sexually exploited."[31] It is obvious that child sexual exploitation is a large-scale, nationwide problem and evidence to the Committee indicates that it is increasing.[32] Despite recent criminal cases laying bare the appalling cost paid by victims for past catastrophic multi agency failures, we believe that there are still places in the UK where victims of child sexual exploitation are being failed by statutory agencies. The police, social services and the Crown Prosecution Service must all bear responsibility for the way in which vulnerable children have been left unprotected by the system. The recent verdict in the Oxford trial demonstrates that contrary to ill-informed beliefs that localised grooming is a crime confined to Northern cities, in fact, no assumptions can be made about where child sexual exploitation takes place. This is a crime that can happen anywhere. Belatedly agencies have made positive steps to try and improve the situation but there is no doubt that both in terms of support for victims and prosecution of offenders, a postcode lottery still exists and agencies are still failing to work effectively together. Those cases of children at risk identified by the Office of the Children's Commissioner must be monitored by local authorities who have overriding responsibility for the welfare of those children.

17. The Office of the Children's Commissioner has the power to require statutory agencies to respond to its recommendations but no sanctions available to it should those recommendations fail to be implemented.[33] We take this opportunity to record our gratitude to the Office of the Children's Commissioner for its work in the area of child sexual exploitation and support all of the recommendations made as part of both the accelerated report and the interim report. We recommend that the Government publish a timetable for implementation of these recommendations which will ensure they are in operation by January 2014.

18. In January 2013 the former Minister responsible for tackling child sexual exploitation, Tim Loughton MP, told our colleagues on the Education Committee that the child sexual exploitation agenda was not being implemented by the Department for Education and that he would have expected a number of measures such as data sharing to have been put into practice by now. He spoke about three working groups on child sexual exploitation that he established, none of which had produced any practical actions.[34] Sheila Taylor of the National Working Group noted that the current Minister, Edward Timpson MP, has a wider portfolio than his predecessor but emphasised that the commitment to work on the issue of the Department was obvious. However, she did highlight concerns around the impact on reductions in resources to agencies tackling child sexual exploitation.[35] The Minister explained that he had both gained and lost items from his predecessor's portfolio, so there was no overall expansion in the ministerial workload.[36] He also cited work which was currently ongoing to assist local authorities in reducing the impact of a decrease in resources.[37] We do not doubt the commitment of either the Minister or the Department for Education to tackling child sexual exploitation. However, the commitment must be maintained in the future if the Government wishes to tackle the issue with any degree of success. The failure of these cases has been both systemic and cultural. Rules and guidelines existed which were not followed. People employed as public servants appeared to lack human compassion when dealing with victims. Children have only one chance at childhood. For too long, victims of child sexual exploitation have been deprived of that childhood without society challenging their abusers. Such a situation must never happen again.

1 Back

2   Manchester Evening News, 'Yawning cop who seemed to sum up how the girls were not taken seriously. Tribute to bravery of the girls who were persuaded to talk', May 9, 2012 Back

3   Emma Jackson is a pseudonym. Back

4   Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, "Mistakes were made.", HMIC's review into allegations and intelligence material concerning Jimmy Savile between 1964 and 2012, 2013, p52 Back

5   Department for Education, Tackling Sexual Exploitation Action Plan, 2011, p4 Back

6   Ev w5 [Missing People] Back

7   Derby City Council Website: Back

8   Qq 101, 159 Back

9   Barnardo's, Puppet on a String, 2011, p2 Back

10   Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, Out of Sight, Out of Mind,2011, p5 Back

11   Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, Executive Summary, Out of Mind, Out of Sight; Breaking down the barriers to understanding child sexual exploitation, June 2011, p9 Back

12   Howard League for Penal Reform, Out of place: The policing and criminalisation of sexually exploited girls and young women, July 2012 Back

13   ChildLine, Caught in a Trap, Oct 2012, p12 Back

14   ChildLine, Caught in a Trap, p10 Back

15   Ibid., p11 Back

16   Ibid., p5 Back

17   Ibid., p9 Back

18   Ibid., p10 Back

19   Education Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2012-13, Children first: the child protection system in England, HC 137, para 80 Back

20   Ibid., para 79 Back

21   Ibid., para 94 Back

22   Ibid., para 117 Back

23   Office of the Children's Commissioner, Accelerated report, Briefing for the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Education, on the emerging findings of the Office of the Children's Commissioner's Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups, with a special focus on children in care, July 2012, p40 Back

24   For example Schedule 5 to the Children's Homes Regulations 2001 (as amended by the Children's Homes (Amendment) Regulations 2011). Back

25   Office of the Children's Commissioner, Accelerated report, p44 Back

26   Office of the Children's Commissioner, Interim report, "I thought I was the only one. The only one in the world", November 2012, p9 Back

27   Office of the Children's Commissioner, Interim report, p11 Back

28   Ibid., p12 Back

29   Ibid., p16 Back

30   Q 672 Back

31   Q 134 Back

32   Qq 211, 251, 802, 850 Back

33   Qq 690-2 Back

34   Oral evidence taken before the Education Committee on 16 January 2013, HC (2012-13) 851-i, Q35 [Mr Loughton] Back

35   Q 853 Back

36   Q 905 Back

37   Q 906 Back

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Prepared 10 June 2013