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'Probe police abuse failures' call

Alleged failures by police to investigate child sexual exploitation (CSE) in South Yorkshire should be examined by the national child abuse inquiry, a lawyer has said.

David Greenwood, the lawyer representing some of the alleged victims of CSE, said he believed an inquiry should be chaired by a judge.

Mr Greenwood was speaking after reports made public for the first time revealed that police were warned around 10 years ago about the extent of the CSE problem in the county but did nothing about it.

The reports, written by Dr Angie Heal in 2003 and 2006, outlined the issue of CSE in South Yorkshire.

Dr Heal told The Star newspaper in Sheffield that she provided police with the names of suspected offenders in 2003 but said nothing was done with the information.

Mr Greenwood said: "More evidence is emerging of police behaviour which amounted to an unofficial policy to refuse to investigate allegations of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham.

"The new Police and Crime Commissioner, Mr Billings, has acknowledged these alleged failures and believes the position to be so serious that he has asked for an inquiry.

"In view of the gravity of the failures alleged against the police, any such investigation should in my view be chaired by a judge and should have powers to compel witnesses to give evidence under oath.

"The failures in Rotherham may merit examination by the national child abuse inquiry chaired by Mrs Justice Goddard."

Last August , a report by Professor Alexis Jay provoked nationwide shock when it revealed that at least 1,400 children were raped, trafficked and groomed in Rotherham.

A further review by Louise Casey, published earlier this year, led to the mass resignation of the ruling Labour cabinet and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles ordered Government-appointed commissioners to take over the running of the council.

Dr Heal's report in August 2003, about the links between sexual exploitation and drug use, found there was a "significant" number of girls being sexually exploited in Rotherham and Sheffield.

Dr Heal, a strategic drugs analyst with South Yorkshire Police, said some young people became "willing victims" and did not understand they were being exploited. They were often reluctant to give statements to police and the men involved sometimes threatened them and their families.

She said one 13-year-old, from a middle-class family, reported being raped on four separate weekends by a number of men. The perpetrators threatened her and her family into not giving evidence and police were unable to act without statements from the girl.

Another girl said she was kidnapped on a number of successive weekends and repeatedly raped but her father did not feel able to complain because he was too scared.

Dr Heal also noted a number of missed opportunities by police to catch offenders.

The report warned police and partner agencies not to be complacent and made a number of recommendations.

"No one has got it right," she said. "If all this report achieves is to raise awareness of the situation that exists, then that is a start. But we owe more to our young people than that. Some are being horrendously abused and think that it is normal behaviour."

Nearly three years later, in March 2006, Dr Heal wrote a further report about the links between sexual exploitation and gun crime.

She said the situation in Rotherham had not changed since her previous report.

"The situation in Rotherham continues as it has done for a number of years and as described by Heal 2003 and others. The issue of sexual exploitation in the town remains significant," she said.

"Rotherham has an established sexual exploitation scene, which is described as very organised and involving systematic physical and sexual violence against the young women involved."

Dr Heal spoke to one police officer who said the awareness of the issue of sexual exploitation among frontline police officers had not really improved.

And she found that perpetrators of CSE often exploited the fact that police were not good at sharing information between forces and districts.

She reported that young women and girls were regularly trafficked between towns and cities and told they could not go home unless they had sex with a number of different men first.

Dr Heal said perpetrators were able to "carry on with impunity" and recommended that more emphasis should be placed on tackling the abusers, rather than the abused.

She said there was a high-profile campaign in South Yorkshire in relation to trafficking women from Eastern Europe for prostitution.

"However, the abuse, exploitation and trafficking of local girls and young women for the same purpose appears to be largely ignored," she said.

Alan Billings, South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner, said nothing was done about CSE because the girls involved were seen as prostitutes.

Dr Billings said "it all went wrong" because police did not understand what grooming was or that it was child abuse.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I don't think any of us at that time understood what grooming was and that this was grooming.

"I think we saw these girls not as victims but as troublesome young people out of control and willing participants.

"We saw it as child prostitution rather than child abuse, and I think that was broadly accepted and that's why it all went wrong."

Dr Billings said police were prioritising burglary and car theft because of public demands at the time.

And he said the problem was a cultural issue which went beyond South Yorkshire Police.

South Yorkshire Police admitted to past failings in the way they handled CSE.

The force is subject to an ongoing independent investigation by the IPCC and Dr Billings recently announced a county-wide inspection after allegations about CSE in Sheffield.

A police spokeswoman said: "The Chief Constable understands and accepts this inspection is necessary to gain an understanding of past issues across the county and allow the force to begin the process of rebuilding public confidence.

"South Yorkshire Police has made significant progress in tackling child sexual exploitation but we understand more needs to be done.

"There has been a significant increase in the number of police officers and staff dedicated to tackling child sexual exploitation and we are absolutely committed to achieving justice, stopping the harm and preventing future offending."

The spokeswoman said there were ongoing investigations into historic CSE allegations and a number of arrests had been made.

Multi-agency teams have been set up across the county and the force has invested in training to improve its service to victims and survivors of CSE.

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