In a restaurant in Manchester last Wednesday my phone began to vibrate so often that I thought it was in meltdown. Minutes earlier I had posted a message on Twitter reacting to the findings of an inquiry into the grooming and abuse of young girls in Telford.
The message read: “Hard to understand why Telford scandal is not front of every paper. 1000 children.” It went viral and was eventually viewed two million times.
A three-year independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in the Shropshire town had uncovered child abuse lasting decades. So why were the media not shouting about it in every newspaper, radio broadcast and TV bulletin? Was it apathy? Concern at media outlets over how to report on the culturally awkward subject of Asian men, largely of Pakistani heritage, abusing scores of children? Or are we so fascinated by the power struggles of Tory politicians that we don’t care about life in towns and villages far away from London?
Halfway through my starter, I asked my lunch partner, Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor for northwest England who brought down the Rochdale child sex abuse ring, what he believed.
He blamed apathy. Fatigue. We’ve seen it all before. “At first everybody was reading about the Ukraine war and talking about it. But that has started to fall away. It’s the same with the child sex gangs,” he said.
The blitz of stories about grooming gangs has felt endless. Court cases. Council reviews. Police watchdog reports. Last month a report by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), called Operation Linden, found that South Yorkshire police let down 1,400 abuse victims in Rotherham — enough children to fill a decent-size secondary school.
The same month, Greater Manchester’s authorities published their own review of historical child sex abuse, which found children had been left exposed to sexual exploitation because of “serious failings” by the police and Oldham council. This included a council welfare officer convicted of 30 rapes.
Child sex gangs have been rooted out in Newcastle, Oxford, Halifax, Keighley, Derby, Peterborough, Bristol, Huddersfield, Manchester, Coventry, Middlesbrough, Burton-on-Trent, Bradford, Birmingham, Nottingham, Hull, Sheffield … I could go on, but you get the picture.
“They’re in the news for 24 hours, then it’s gone,” Afzal said. “It’s today’s newspaper, but not tomorrow’s.”
And after each scandal nothing seems to change. Like the police and social services, we move on, and lurch to the next scandal of mass rape in a post-industrial town. That’s the problem. But how do we fix it? Be more proactive, Afzal argues. He makes a good point.
Victims often feel criminalised and made to believe it is their fault — that they chose a certain lifestyle and are paying for it. These young girls are so traumatised by their abuse that they are rightly suspicious of the authorities.
They find it hard to trust social workers and detectives. Children like that are not going to easily approach such people, so you have to go out and find them.
Roughly a decade ago, there was a scheme in Greater Manchester in which social workers would go out at night and visit the staff and customers of the night-time economy – the takeaway shops, pool halls and taxi ranks. This is an economy that, for whatever reason, has a disproportionately high number of Asian men.
It is in the dimly lit streets and litter-strewn pavements of the night-time economy that the perpetrators meet their victims, luring them in with gifts of food, cigarettes, booze and free rides. A victim’s mother once told me her 14-year-old daughter was performing oral sex in exchange for a bag of chips or a box of chicken. She cried to me on the phone. The whole family is broken.
The 14-year-old met her abusers in a chicken shop. Local authorities, like all public services, are firefighting, with budget cuts due to austerity and holes in their finances due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Money is stretched thinly – and proactive work is always the first to go. But police and social services must recognise this repeating pattern and disrupt it. Set up teams of community police officers and social workers. Get out there and target the night-time economy. Find those victims and earn their trust. Break the cycle.