This post originally appeared in VICE UK
Susie and Elizabeth are not the victims' real names, which have been changed in this article for privacy reasons. The names of the alleged perpetrators have been changed for legal reasons.
Susie didn't know she would become a victim of sexual exploitation when she first met 24-year-old Tariq.
It was the summer of 2001 when their eyes across a crowded shopping center. Susie, then 14, and her mates used to hang out there after ballet class on a Saturday afternoon. She knew Tariq's younger brother, Sajid, from school, and had kissed Sajid when she was drunk. She didn't like him in "that" way, but with Tariq it was different.
Susie couldn't have known that the handsome, charming, older Tariq was a serial groomer. But agencies were aware that Tariq and his three brothers were linked to the sexual exploitation and trafficking of dozens of young teenage girls in Rotherham, Sheffield, and Bradford.
She probably wouldn't have listened to their concerns anyway. Within 24 hours, Susie was in love. After 48 hours, she went missing. Susie said: "My parents tried everything to keep Tariq away from me, but I thought I was in love with him."
Twelve months later, Susie was in the care of Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, where her foster family would let Tariq pick her up outside their door.
Tariq was a heroin dealer with big connections. "He was involved in anything that would get him money. He was the one to go get the big deal and give it to his workers. He didn't have people ringing him and asking him for this and that. He never got his hands dirty," says Susie.
Susie occupied a special place in the hierarchy as Tariq's "girlfriend"—along with 18 other girls who had caught his eye—and was subjected to relentless sexual abuse. At 14, Susie became immersed in a drug culture where sexual exploitation was the norm. At 16, she became a sex worker and had already had two pregnancies.
Over the last few months, it has become clear just how many children were subject to similar atrocities. To those who understand what's going on, the string of disclosures that have emerged since the Rotherham sex scandal won't be surprising. Perhaps the most disturbing fact, though, and the one that the government seems determined to ignore, is that, in towns and cities across England, child sexual exploitation (CSE) is just one franchise within a multimillion-dollar organized crime network.
Professor Jenny Pearce, director of the International Center, which researches CSE and trafficking, said: "One of the scandals of our time is that we haven't embraced CSE fully as a form of organized crime. It has lots of different levels and complexities. The trafficking of young people is being organized by very manipulative and sophisticated adults."
When I asked the Home Office if Theresa May, the home secretary, had ever made this connection in any speeches about CSE, they couldn't point me to any.
Searching through newspaper cuttings, the horror of child prostitution in northern towns first hit the headlines in the 1990s, when it was revealed that children from care homes in Bradford were being sold for sex in the city's notorious red-light district in Manningham, right under the noses of the authorities. Barnardo's opened Streets and Lanes in Manningham in '94, which was the first agency in the UK dedicated to working with children involved in sexual exploitation, and, within a few years, similar projects were operating in Sheffield and Rotherham. Twenty years on, the problem remains.
Susie's story isn't extraordinary. Across the board, the grooming of children for sex follows a gradual but startlingly similar pattern to involving young people in the sex and drugs industry. In 2000, the Home Office issued statutory guidelines quoting research by Streets and Lanes, saying, "A girl is identified by an older man who becomes a 'boyfriend.' Gradually, the boyfriend ensures the girl becomes emotionally dependent on him, initiates her into sex, and detaches her from other influences in her life—friends and family—using emotional and physical violence. This abuse progresses into the older man selling her for sex."
I've been taken to derelict houses in Rotherham and Keighley by victims who had no connection with each other, and yet all had been abused at the same addresses at various times over the past ten years. These were known as "party houses." A mother trembled as she told me how her daughter had been injected with heroin by her abuser while under the influence of date-rape drugs. She went on to develop an addiction not by choice, but by force. She was 14.
Susie knew that the "parties" she was taken to were not what they initially seemed. Apart from a mattress on the floor and some condoms, the party houses were completely empty. They were well known to the local community as brothels, and of course, drugs and sexual exploitation went hand in hand. "Tariq said he was going to put crack in a spliff and get a girl addicted," says Susie. "You might just think you are having a bit of weed, but dealers are soaking it in heroin. That's how they make the money—you get addicted."
Shakeel Aziz is a youth worker with the Star project in Keighley and has been delivering anti-grooming strategies for more than ten years. To him, child grooming and other organized crime are deeply intertwined. "Grooming is an extracurricular activity to an already criminal lifestyle," he says.
Children are inducted into this criminal world at a very young age. In Keighley, I encountered boys of about eight or nine who appeared to be playing innocently in a local park. The kids told me they were "employed" to provide unobtrusive surveillance to alert dealers to any strangers or unusual activity around the "party houses." By the time the spotter kids reach their teens, they are immersed in the predatory culture of exploitation.
Aziz told me how it works. "During the day, young 'Mr. A' works as a drug dealer for a local drug supplier supplying cannabis and cocaine. Mr. A has a friend who rides with him and helps him out. He's selling drugs and making about two hundred pounds per day for his own profit. The grooming starts when Mr. Street Dealer is cruising in his car with a big wad of cash, a couple of bottles of vodka, some cocaine, and cannabis. Mr. A sees two young girls walking on the street, or in town, and it's as easy as parking next to them and sparking up conversation."
Mothers in Rotherham told me how their girls are targeted from the age of 11, in the primary school playground. By the time they transfer to secondary school, they are befriended by older, charming boys handing out soft drinks laced with vodka to unsuspecting children.
From 2001, Angela Sinfield successfully campaigned with Ann Cryer, MP for Keighley, for changes in the law to enable prosecution of CSE. Sinfield's daughter was embroiled in exploitation and, for four years, and she spent every waking moment trying to protect her daughter from a powerful, violent gang that, it seemed, was immune to prosecution. As a councillor for Keighley on Bradford Council from 2006 to 2008, she continued to raise her concerns with police, the council, social services, Barnardo's, Parents against Child Exploitation, and the Home Office.
Sinfield walked me through the deserted Keighley alleyways where she says children are still being groomed. Hidden in the bushes were discarded pizza boxes, sweet wrappers, fag packets, and broken vodka bottles. Innocent enough on face value, but Sinfield said: "I've seen girls in school uniforms sat waiting to be picked up. I've seen the older men passing bottles to the girls out the car windows. The dealers and the girls sit on the wall, and it's obvious they are together. You can hear the girls on their mobile phones arranging to meet. Once the girls are drunk, the cars pull up to take them to a nearby deserted school playground. The school caretaker goes every day to clear the yard because there are always bottles, cans, and used condoms—it's still a very big problem."
We visited the alley at night in torrential rain, but prestige cars still flew up and down the modest terraced streets, eyeing us with suspicion. When we retreated to observe from a distance, we saw the cars visibly slowing down to crawl the kerbs.
For all the progress she made, Sinfield's campaigning hit a brick wall when she claimed it was organized crime involving prominent members of the community. "An agency told me I was on my own," she said. "I said, 'That's fine, love, I've always been on my own.'"
"If they [the gangs] didn't have the money from the drugs, there wouldn't be half the exploitation," she continued. Why? "Because it needs the money. They need it to treat the girls, to buy the flash cars and all the things they give them. They wouldn't be able to do it [without drugs money]."
Two years after Susie met Tariq, another victim, Elizabeth, also came to him through Sajid. Elizabeth told us how she "accidentally" bumped into a group of young Asian lads—including Sajid—during a Saturday afternoon shopping trip. They were introduced by a friend who was already involved in exploitation. Elizabeth—then 13—and her friends began to meet the men regularly, having a drink and a laugh in Rotherham's town centre and Clifton Park. There was always a bottle of vodka and a spliff in the glove compartment of the sports cars driven by Sajid and his brothers. She felt part of a group of older, more exciting friends, who had money, cars and time to shower her with attention.
Taken in by the intimidating charisma of the gang, at 14, Elizabeth was subjected to a horrifying initiation. She was gang raped while another friend looked on in terror, fearing she would be next. The men—a group of about six or more—began filming. Such videos fetch good money when uploaded to international porn sites.
Beyond getting girls to drink and drug themselves by choice—or pure brute force—the groomers have other tactics, too. On one occasion, Tariq took 14-year-old Susie to a "party" and her drink was spiked. "I can't remember much about it, to be honest," she told us. "It went on all day and all night. We just had sex, to the point that I became really, really sore. That's all I remember about it, the sex. I don't even know how long I was there for. Later, I was moved to a house down the road."
Elizabeth was sold for sex to men in cars, parks, alleyways, hotels, and party houses across Yorkshire. The deals were always done away from the eyes and ears of the victims. Sometimes it was for cash, sometimes for favours. She was passed around gang members for "fun," while anyone else would have to pay.
"They used to come and get loads of Asians to come and have sex with me. Older ones, too," she said. The money was made from the men that the gang supplied girls to. Elizabeth was en-route to yet another party house when the driver told her, "We've made a lot of money from you." She was told that blow-jobs from kids were worth more than blow-jobs from adults.
Elizabeth received texts from the gang all day and all night. She would have sex with whoever, wherever she was instructed to, for fear of what would happen if she didn't.
"They used to go on the phone and say, 'Oh we've got a lass here. Come round, and we'll have a right laugh, have a party,'" Elizabeth said. "So there might be eight or nine of them walking through the door, all in high spirits. They've got the Jack Daniels, the fags, and a bit of cocaine. Then you realize, Shit, I'm in this house and there are loads of them. You're the only girl and they're here for you. They are running around naked, getting right excited because it's their turn next to have a shag. And you can't get out of the situation."
Girls would often take someone—another girl—with them for safety. "If they're bringing 20 men with them, it means I'll only have to do ten," says Elizabeth. "It's easier: Get in there, give them what they want, and get out. Because they are not going to allow you out of the house otherwise."
She pauses, looking up for reassurance. "I were 14. I were a kid."
It's been ten years since Elizabeth's abuse stopped, but she's clearly still fighting her demons. Half an hour prior to our conversation she had been a self-assured, confident young professional, determined to speak her mind about her experiences. Afterwards, she couldn't say a word.
In child exploitation—and other areas of organized crime—intimidation is used to keep people compliant, and it went far beyond the girls themselves. Their families and communities were affected, too. It only takes one firebombing, one bad beating, to guarantee years of silence. In their communities, these men are known to be powerful and violent. One father told me that his daughter begged him not to say anything for fear of what the gang would do: "She said you will end up getting killed, you'll end up getting burned." She was 13.
Gill Gibbons of Parents Against Child Exploitation confirmed what other agencies had told me—that there was frustration that the same perpetrators in Rotherham and Bradford had been identified by dozens of different victims time and time again and yet none were brought to justice.
Sinfield and a group of mothers identified over 50 alleged perpetrators that they claimed were exploiting their daughters. The list of names were handed to a local councillor, the MP, and the police. None of the men were ever investigated or prosecuted, nor were the victims interviewed. The men on the list were the sons of important members of the community.
Aziz says he has noticed the business becoming more streamlined and sophisticated, with refined front operations through which to launder money and political and community influence to protect the assets. For exploitation to operate successfully, it needs an infrastructure. Like the Keighley gangs, Tariq's extended family own a string of businesses—taxi companies, takeaways, and properties. The family had—and still have—powerful political connections and family members are serving police officers, councillors, magistrates and solicitors.
The Rotherham sex scandal, though, has catalyzed the hunt to bring sex gangs to justice. Both West and South Yorkshire police have re-opened investigations into allegations of historic CSE. In Rotherham, two major investigations are underway involving 283 victims and 18 suspects. This time around, of course, victims seeking justice are older and less malleable. They won't be silenced so easily. Currently, three men are under arrest for offences that took place in 2001.
Councils, social workers, the police and the Home Office have known that children from across the North have been sold for sex for decades. However, there is real reluctance to admit that CSE is just one franchise within a multimillion-pound organized crime network dealing in sex and drugs.
This year, Britain offset £10 billion ($15.7 billion) in revenue from drugs and prostitution against the national debt. Yet no one wants to recognize how much of that figure has been generated, or at what cost, by children like Susie and Elizabeth.