The scale of abuse in Rotherham shocked many, but depressingly few of those working at the frontline of child sexual exploitation (CSE). As one support worker told me: “Rotherham is not the exception, it is more likely to be the norm.”
But what was different about Rotherham, was a number – 1,400. That is 1,400 childhoods stolen and families broken. It is hard to conceive in a town of around 250,000 people.
Victims and parents were ignored and at times, treated with contempt by the authorities. It rightly prompted questions about who knew what and why they did not act.
We saw young girls in the early hours of the morning coming in and out of buildings with different men.
But while the victims, now young women, wait to see if their cases will make it to court, grooming continues.
Channel 4 News has obtained figures that show high levels of children at risk of CSE in England in the first six months of this year – in fact, thousands of children are at risk, including in some cases, babies. What we found surprising was the admission by some councils that they only started recording CSE referrals last year.
The data includes a range of abuse and it is recorded in different ways by different councils. However, we wanted to look at grooming and the picture beyond Rotherham.
There have been great strides made by police, social services and charities in some parts of the UK. In Keighley, in a project run by The Children’s Society, former victims of grooming are now acting as mentors to other vulnerable girls and boys. They are taught to spot warning signs and recognise what is unhealthy behaviour. It is significant progress in a town where in 2002, the Labour MP Ann Cryer became the first public figure in Britain to speak out about allegations of “young Asian lads” grooming underage white girls in the West Yorkshire town.
The clock is ticking
But there is no one national support programme, nor is there one single pattern to the abuse or abusers. And the clock is ticking. I was told by one woman working with affected families that a referral to a specialist CSE team within the first six months of the abuse starting is vital. Otherwise the child can become trapped in the abuse, distorting their perspective of a healthy relationship and leading to further trauma that can affect brain development.
We spent three nights in Bradford, one of the towns with the highest number of CSE referrals in England in 2014. We spoke to young people and tried to observe what was happening on the streets. Some of the young girls from Rotherham say they were trafficked to Bradford. It is a lively and multicultural city, but young people told us the reporting of grooming cases has created racial tension.
It is hard to define what we saw, but there were unsettling moments. Within minutes of arriving, we spotted a police officer looking for a missing 14-year-old. He said: “This happens all the time in Bradford and the girl goes missing two or three times a month.”
Rotherham is not the exception, it is more likely to be the norm.Support worker
It is a familiar feature in grooming cases around the UK. Minutes later, we saw young girls in the early hours of the morning coming in and out of buildings with different men. It is difficult to know their age, but they looked like vulnerable teenagers. In the red light area, we also witnessed a group of men abusing a sex worker.
But there is division in the way people describe the situation in Bradford and in many other cities where sexual abuse has been identified. We met a group of young people that in some ways symbolise that divide. A 15-year-old girl told us her mother had moved her out of nearby Keighley because she and her sister were approached a number of times by older white and Asian men. But the girl’s friend, who is Asian, says the media has unfairly focused on grooming gangs with Pakistani heritage. He claims to have been stopped by police simply because he was walking with a white girl.
His concern is backed up by some of the parents we spoke to in the rest of the country. We met one, called Jenny, whose daughter Sarah (not their real names) was abused by a group of white boys from the age of 12. The perpetrators were teenagers – something she feels is often overlooked.
Our film, broadcast on Channel 4 News at 7pm tonight, is only a snapshot of a hugely complex issue. But we hope it goes beyond the issues raised in Rotherham and reflects some of the current challenges and successes in tackling grooming.