A British parliamentary report has warned that organized sex abuse is widespread in England, and called for local councils to review their child protection procedures.
Parliament's Communities and Local Government Committee undertook the review after the revelation in August that 1,400 children had been abused and exploited in the South Yorkshire town of Rotherham between 1997 and 2013.
"On the evidence we took," the report says, "the alarming conclusion is that Rotherham was not an outlier and that there is a widespread problem of organised child sexual exploitation in England."
Child sexual exploitation is regarded as a hidden form of abuse, because the victims often trust the perpetrators. It occurs when young people are manipulated and sexually exploited for money, status, or other reasons. They might be given things like alcohol, drugs, or simply warmth and affection, and coerced into taking part in sexual activity.
Children of both genders are victims — research from University College London and the British children's charity Barnardo's has found that nearly one in three sexually exploited children that the charity has supported since 2008 is male.
"No one knows the true scale of child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Rotherham over the years," said a report published last year by the Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council. "Our conservative estimate is that approximately 1400 children were sexually exploited over the full Inquiry period, from 1997 to 2013."
The council's report detailed the harrowing experiences of various victims.
"They were raped by multiple perpetrators, trafficked to other towns and cities in the north of England, abducted, beaten, and intimidated," it said. "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."
Iyrna Pona, policy advisor at the Children's Society, told VICE News that child sexual exploitation can "happen everywhere and can affect any community and any young person."
"There's an expectation that young people will come forward and expose this," she said, "but many young people would not be able to identify that they are in situations of child exploitation."
Pona added that it's dangerous to have preconceptions of what a child abuser looks or acts like.
"It's important to keep an open mind because in different cases — depending on where the young person is and who they're in contact with — the perpetrator could be almost anyone," she said. "Maybe groups and gangs in some areas, but in other situations it may be lone perpetrators, or someone targeting young people online. It could also be situations where young people believe that they are genuinely in relationships, but what is actually happening is that they are being abused in that way by someone who is closer in age to them."
David Greenwood, a lawyer who represents 32 female victims from Rotherham, told VICE News that he welcomed Parliament's report because it investigates the local council's actions and why no one was taking notice of what was happening to these children.
"There was no one empowered to make sure that all the plans that had been put together by the different meetings and groups were actually being carried out," he said.
Greenwood believes that all organizations that work with children, particularly churches, should be subjected to oversight by an independent body.
"I don't think what happened in Rotherham was unique," he remarked. "I think the mixture of politics and inaction is toward the upper end of the scale, but for a lot of years many councils and police forces were not recognizing what CSE actually is. And so I think a lot of councils will be working out what they did or didn't do."
Greenwood is fighting for compensation for the girls he represents, but expects it will take at least another year until their cases can be resolved. Local authorities had not offered them any sort of support in the meantime, he noted, despite all of them suffering in some way from psychological harm.
"I would have thought the council would be bending over backwards to find the girls and knock on their doors and offer support, but that's not been happening," he said. "The girls are left to try and find support from different charities — who are doing a good job, by the way — but no one is coming to them and saying, 'Can I help you? What can I do for you?' "
One Rotherham victim, identified by the pseudonym "Jessica," told the BBC in September that she was 14 when she met the 24-year-old man who abused her. Initially, she was very happy.
"I thought we was gonna get married, have kids, settle down," she said.
Within two years, Jessica was being abused on a regular basis. She went to the police, but her request for help was dismissed. "What do you expect?" she was asked.
"I don't think they're sorry that I got abused," she said, referring to the neglect of public officials. "They're sorry that they got caught out in a scandal that hit the media."
In 2012, the Children's Commissioner estimated that 16,000 children were at risk of sexual exploitation, but senior government sources were quoted by the Telegraph calling this figure "hysterical and half-baked."
"This report underlines that the appalling child sexual abuse uncovered in Rotherham is just the tip of the iceberg, and exists across England," Matthew Reed, chief executive of the Children's Society, said in a statement. "Good quality services must be available whenever they are needed and the costs of supporting victims of child sexual exploitation must always be met. You simply cannot put a price on a child's safety."
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd
Image via Flickr