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Here Be Dragons

How Can the UK Prevent Child Abuse?

We know next to nothing about child abuse in Britain.

Image by Marta Parszeniew

It's hard to keep track of the UK's recent scandals. Cases skip by week after week-Fernbridge, Fairbanks, Yewtree-the peaceful names at odds with the collections of human misery and suffering they aim to catalog. Rotherham is the latest, an industrial Yorkshire town once famous for its iron, now notorious for the sexual abuse of at least 1,400 children by gangs of men over the past 16 years.


Professor Alexis Jay led the investigation that exposed the scale of what had taken place in Rotherham. "It is hard to describe the appalling nature of the abuse that child victims suffered," she writes. "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."

In many ways, the first line of her report is the most disturbing: "No one knows the true scale of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham over the years." Jay's "conservative estimate" was 1,400. But that was little more than a guess, for one large-ish town in one part of Yorkshire. And as she notes: "This abuse is not confined to the past but continues to this day."

Sections of the press leapt on the Asian identity of many of the perpetrators in Rotherham, picking up on Jay's assertion that some local case workers were concerned about raising the ethnicity of offenders for fear of being accused of racism. Of course, that fed into wider tabloid concerns about "Asian grooming gangs." Only a few days ago, the Daily Mail complained that authorities weren't doing enough to combat this all-pervasive Asian menace: "Educational video warning of Asian grooming gangs was made for schools seven years ago but was hardly used amid fears of appearing racist," they spluttered.


Of course, even a cursory glimpse at the last 20 years shows this problem clearly isn't limited to one community. This isn't the first child abuse scandal, and Asian communities aren't the only ones to have been put under the spotlight. Each major incident has put scrutiny on a new group: the Catholic Church, Muslims, the BBC, Westminster, the NHS, social services… the list goes on and on. So who exactly are the abusers? Are there any groups at all that we can single out?

The national Child Exploitation and Online Protection service (CEOP), tried to figure this out in a report released in 2011. It hoped to bring together data from agencies across the country to create a national picture of how much child abuse was happening, who carried it out, and so on. That effort pretty much failed: "Data relating to child sexual exploitation is often partial and incomplete… or simply unrecorded."

They couldn't say anything meaningful about ethnicity because, in many cases, it wasn't even recorded. Many agencies had no data on child abuse at all. Few of them proactively looked for cases of abuse, and as a result didn't find them. Out of almost 150 Local Safeguarding Children Boards-groups across the country that coordinate relevant local agencies in child protection-only 13 even replied to CEOP's request for information.

In other words, we know next to nothing about child abuse in the UK. We don't know how often it happens. We don't know who the victims are. We don't know who the perpetrators are. We have only the sketchiest ideas about the risk factors. We are in a state of profound ignorance.


Much of this is basic incompetence, but some of it is more sinister. The Telegraph reported that Rotherham Council officers launched a "raid" on a local youth service to destroy evidence. A Home Office official investigating the matter as far back as 2002 told Panorama that her office had been raided and a filing cabinet emptied of data.

We can't measure the abuse directly, but we can look at some of the things we do know and try to extrapolate from them. The NSPCC have led efforts to do this, and the message of their most recent report is pretty bleak: "Child abuse is more prevalent, and more devastating, than many of us are prepared to recognize." Eight rapes or attempted rapes are recorded against children under 13 in a typical day, and those are just the cases that get reported-the tip of the iceberg.


The NSPCC estimate that 520,000 children were mistreated by a parent or guardian in 2011; 260,000 children were mistreated by an adult outside the home; nearly a quarter of a million were in need due to abuse and neglect. Around 30,000 sexual or cruelty/neglect offenses against children were recorded by the police. Much of this is guesswork, though. Young children being abused aren't likely to come forward, and nor are their parents. Even when people know about abuse by others, it often goes unreported.

Then there's the nature of the abusers. When Jimmy Savile's actions came to light, people were shocked at the scale of it all. Plenty still buy into the idea that sexual abuse is often a one-off offense perpetrated by people who lose control. The thing is, we know from the research of people like Dr David Lisak that this isn't the case, as I've written before:


The average rapist is not a stranger in a ski mask, hiding in the bushes. The average rapist is acquainted with the victim. He is motivated more by power, anger and a desire to control than by sexual impulse. His attacks-and he is likely to be a serial offender-are often premeditated. He uses sophisticated strategies and psychological manipulation to identify, groom and isolate victims. He is likely to have committed other violent crimes, such as the abuse of children or partners. […] On the campuses Lisak has studied, "the vast majority of rapes are committed by serial, violent predators."

That lines up pretty closely with what little the CEOP were able to find in its report. "Many offenders appeared to derive satisfaction from exerting control over victims through coercive and manipulative behavior, not only to commit sexual offenses, but also as an end in itself. In this respect, the offender psychology appears to bear a resemblance to perpetrators of domestic abuse. Further debriefing of offenders is needed to gain a better understanding of this."

What this suggests when you piece it all together is pretty terrifying.

Over the last couple of decades, Britain has launched investigation after investigation into cases of child abuse. We're investigating sex abuse in the church, we're investigating sex abuse in Muslim communities, we're investigating it in the entertainment industry, in social services, in homes for the young, in homes for the old, in hospitals, in the entertainment and music industries, in the charity sector, in aviation, in schools, in parliament and in countless other walks of life.

Every time these cases come to light, people try to pin the blame on one group. It's convenient, because it stops us from having to face a much more horrific truth-that there was nothing that special or unusual about Rotherham, and that child abuse is happening everywhere, all the time.

An Englishman's home is his castle, and many of those castles are ruled by tyrants. Not harassed parents losing control, but brutal bullies and torturers who inflict pain on children again and again and again over the course of many years, acting with complete impunity. Most will never be caught, and, worst of all, the damage they cause will never be undone.

Follow Martin Robins on Twitter.

Previously: Most of What You Read About the 'iWatch' Was Utterly Wrong