Thursday, 27 September 2012

'Missed chances' by authorities led to major child exploitation scandal

(Photo by Design Pics Inc/ Rex)
Social workers, police and the Crown Prosecution Service "missed opportunities" to stop a child exploitation ring abusing young girls, a report into the scandal revealed today.

"Deficiencies" in the way children's social care responded to the victims' needs in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, were caused by "patchy" training of frontline staff, the Rochdale Borough Safeguarding Children Board (RBSCB) said in its review into child sexual exploitation (CSE).

The review was ordered in the aftermath of a trial which saw nine Asian men jailed for grooming young white girls for sex.

The picture which emerges from the report is one of vulnerable young girls, some as young as 10, who were being targeted for sexual abuse, being written off by those in authority who believed the girls were "making their own choices".

The review comes just days after The Times published a report which alleged that agencies in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, were aware of extensive and co-ordinated abuse of white girls by some Asian men and detailed a range of offences for which no-one has been prosecuted.

Rochdale Council said it has used the review's findings to implement a catalogue of changes and improvements.

The report looked at how agencies including the council, police, NHS and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) worked between 2007 and 2012 to safeguard children and young people who were at risk of sexual exploitation.

The report, which specifically followed the treatment of one 15-year-old victim, says: "While some organisations were consistently supportive in their response, overall child welfare organisations missed opportunities to provide a comprehensive, co-ordinated and timely response and, in addition, the criminal justice system missed opportunities to bring the perpetrators to justice."

The report also says: "Activity to disrupt alleged offenders was developing
  on the ground but this was not always followed through at a more senior level.

"The early investigations of crimes and the prosecution of alleged offenders were flawed."

RBSCB chairwoman Lynne Jones said: "We have responded to this review and improvements have been implemented. I believe organisations are working better together, sharing information to ensure children are protected and that perpetrators of these crimes are prosecuted."

She added: "Raising awareness so that young people are better equipped to understand what is happening to them or their friends has been delivered to 10,000 young people.

"Staff training has ensured that professionals are now more aware and able to respond appropriately.
"We are also seeing stronger joint working on police operations to bring people to justice."
The review found:

:: Specific training for frontline practitioners in the borough was patchy and lessons were absorbed inconsistently;

:: There were deficiencies in the way that children's social care responded to the victims' needs;

:: In children's social care, the focus was on younger children at risk of abuse from family and household members, rather than on vulnerable adolescents;

:: Agencies which referred potential victims were said to be "frustrated" that they were not "being adequately assessed and dealt with by the local authority", and staff failed to escalate their concerns successfully;

:: Agencies and organisations in Rochdale made faltering early progress in developing a satisfactory framework for managing allegations of child sexual exploitation;

:: The need for a specialist resource was identified in 2008, but its development was inadequately co-ordinated and supported;

:: There was a poor response by children's social care to cases where children were at risk of sexual exploitation.

The report concludes: "Although, between 2009 and February 2012, some improvements had been consolidated, the review acknowledges there were missed opportunities, over the last five years, to safeguard children and young people who have been affected by sexual exploitation."

The gang of nine men received jail sentences of between four and 19 years in May from a judge who said they treated their victims "as though they were worthless and beyond any respect".

The offences happened in and around Rochdale in 2008 and 2009.

The five girls - aged between 13 and 15 - were given alcohol, food and money in return for sex but there were times when violence was used.

Police said the victims were from "chaotic", "council estate" backgrounds and as many as 50 girls could have been victims of the gang.

A chance to stop the gang was missed in 2008 and both the police and the CPS were forced to apologise for their failings.

The first victim, who was 15 when the abuse began, told the police what had been happening to her in August 2008.

She specifically spoke of her abuse at the hands of two members of the gang who would later be jailed four years.

Her complaint was not taken seriously and she carried on being abused by the gang until December 2008 when she fell pregnant and moved away.

Rochdale Council said the recommendations in the review have led to improvements being implemented which include:

:: More than 10,000 staff in agencies in the borough have received briefings in respect of recognition and response to sexual exploitation;

:: More than 1,500 staff have had face-to-face training with plans to reach the whole workforce by the end of this year;

:: The formulation of a multi-agency strategy to ensure a more co-ordinated response to child sexual exploitation;

:: An increase in staffing in the Sunrise Team, created to prevent and tackle child sexual exploitation;
:: New procedures to follow when staff refer possible child sexual exploitation cases;

:: The introduction of one point of contact for referrals of concern and all referrals to children's social care services for children over the age of 12 being screened for early signs of child sexual exploitation;

:: Regular meetings to ensure services share concerns about possible victims, abusers and hotspots in the borough and develop appropriate responses.

Jim Taylor, chief executive of Rochdale Borough Council, said: "We must not forget these terrible acts were committed by criminals and I applaud the bravery of the young women for bringing these cases to court.
"This review highlights that all agencies did not work together adequately and it is very clear that, in the past, council services missed opportunities to offer assistance. I deeply regret this.

"The council accepts the findings of this review, which has shown deficiencies in our children's social care service and, in parts, an unacceptable level of support.

"There was more that could and should have been done to protect the victims when allegations first came to light.

"Unacceptable practice is being investigated and dealt with in line with our procedures.

"We are well aware of the issues the review raises and the way the council and its partners now approach the issue of child sexual exploitation has changed. We are now more able to intervene earlier and more robustly."
The council's own review of internal processes and procedures will be published next month.

Chief Superintendent Annette Anderson, Divisional Commander for Rochdale, said: "This report once again highlights the complex nature of child sexual exploitation and we acknowledge its findings.

"We have already stated that there were issues with an initial inquiry into CSE in Rochdale in 2008.
"However, the IPCC are currently supervising an investigation into that inquiry so it would be inappropriate for us to go into further details at this moment.

"What we can say is that GMP's (Greater Manchester Police's) force-wide approach to child sexual exploitation and child abuse in general has changed significantly over the last few years.
"Locally, with our partners at the council and the health service, Rochdale division now has formal working strategies to tackle head-on child exploitation.

"Integral to this has been an intensive programme of raising awareness with officers which has now happened to such an extent that they all now see CSE as part of a wider pattern of behaviour and offending.
"What cannot be lost, however, is that we are talking about the abuse of children by adults and it is the criminals themselves who take ultimate responsibility for their actions."

Today's report is only one of a number of reviews that are set to be published in the coming months, including the IPCC and a full Serious Case Review, due for publication in 2013.

Simon Danczuk MP, representing Rochdale, said: "Some months ago I spoke in Parliament about the appalling attitudes shown by Rochdale social workers in blaming the young victims of rape for their abuse.

"The Independent Safeguarding Board's investigation confirms this culture within Rochdale council, as case files show social workers believed young girls who were raped were 'making their own choices' and 'engaging in consensual sexual activity'.

"What this report shows is that young girls' cries for help were systematically ignored and I'm in no doubt that the poor response by council services would have emboldened the criminal to make them think they could carry on abusing with impunity."

He added: "They knew the girls had been to the police and social services and because nothing happened they must have thought 'we can get away with raping girls for as long as we want'. This report only looks at one case and clearly shows a culture of neglect. The more thorough Serious Case Review I am sure will reveal an even worse picture."

Richard Scorer, a solicitor for some of the abused girls, said it was "very likely" they would be taking legal action against the authorities for failing to protect them.

Mr Scorer told ITV's Daybreak programme the report was "very, very damning", and highlighted "a whole catalogue of failings, mainly by Rochdale social services".

He said: "I think based on the evidence in this report it is very likely that we will be going forward with legal action.

"It is fairly unusual for social services to be sued. It does happen but it is fairly unusual.
"Most of the cases we have seen in the past have tended to involve younger children, so this case is fairly novel.

"But I think it is right that where social services have failed in this way that they are held properly to account."
Asked whether the girls have been able rebuild their lives and come to terms with what happened to them, Mr Scorer said: "Of course they are deeply traumatised and distressed by these events, which have lasted over many years.

"But they want to have the opportunity to rebuild their lives, the means, the wherewithal to do that, and that of course is part of the reason for bringing this case.

"What they also want to see is some cultural change in social services and hopefully the report is the first stage of that, but they want to press home that point and the legal action is part of achieving that."
He added: "I think there was a view in social services that somehow these girls were making their own choices about this.

"The reality is that they were trapped in this situation. They were victims of violence and threats of violence, they were trapped in the situation, they couldn't escape from it and they needed the help and support of social services and the police to do that.

"Of course eventually that came, but it came many years too late."

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