Grooming gangs who preyed on 700 women and girls in north-east England acted with “arrogant persistence” after police were seen to be punishing victims for their situation, a serious case review has found.
The report from the retired barrister David Spicer into the response by authorities in Newcastle to child sexual exploitation concluded that victims received effective protection after the launch of a Northumbria police investigation in January 2014. Before that, however, the force’s actions lacked consistency and had little impact, it said.
Seventeen men and one woman were jailed last year for being part of a network that plied 22 women and girls aged 13-25 with drink and drugs before sexually assaulting them between 2011 and 2014.
The trials were the result of the Northumbria police investigation Operation Shelter, part of the larger Operation Sanctuary, the force’s investigation into the sexual exploitation of vulnerable children and adults. The report said Sanctuary had identified 700 victims in the force’s area. Perpetrators have received a total of 429 years and three months in prison as part of the operation.
Addressing the response from authorities before 2014, the report said perpetrators were not consistently investigated or interviewed. “Historical information was not routinely accessed and incidents were treated as separate occurrences with no strategy to pull information together to improve understanding of the whole picture,” it said.
“While perpetrators were not punished or disrupted, attempts to persuade victims to change behaviours and not return to the abusers led to consideration of deterrent punishments of victims for being drunk and disorderly or for making false allegations when accounts were changed. Some victims were placed in secure accommodation.
“This sent an unhelpful message to perpetrators. They were unlikely to be prosecuted or prevented from continuing to abuse, encouraging an arrogant persistence. It also had a significant impact on victims who learnt that nothing would be done against perpetrators.”
The report highlighted a stark contrast between the approach taken before and after early 2014, when a Northumbria police investigation was first launched, but it stressed that many of the reasons identified for lack of action in reviews in other cities – including ignoring whistleblowers, members of the public or families, lack of compassion or empathy, misplaced concerns about political correctness and fears of allegations of racism – did not occur in Newcastle.
It did, however, add: “Practitioners did feel that early responses had the appearance of blaming the victims for their behaviour and allocating them responsibility for making bad choices.”
The report detailed victims’ accounts of sexual abuse after being drugged. “I never had sex when I was sober,” one victim told Spicer. “I wanted to leave. I was given drink. I kept saying no and fighting them off. I was very tired and fell asleep. When I woke, I had been raped.”
“I didn’t think what was happening was wrong,” said another. “I thought they were my friends. They bought me drink and drugs. I thought it was OK because of my family. Then it became more sinister. Different. There were parties with men a lot older: 30-40, when previously 20-21.”