Child abuse report 'a wake-up call'
Hundreds of girls may have been sexually exploited after authorities repeatedly failed to tackle grooming gangs responsible for "indescribably awful" abuse, a report has found.
As many as 373 children have been identified as potential victims in Oxfordshire over 16 years.
A highly-critical serious case review published today reveals a catalogue of failings by authorities meant the scale of the child sexual exploitation (CSE) in the county was not recognised and opportunities to tackle it were missed.
Accounts of abuse were not taken seriously, under-age girls were seen as having "consented" and described in terms that suggested they were partly to blame for their ordeal, the report said.
One victim was dismissed as a "nuisance" when she went to a police station covered in blood in the early hours of the morning, while a detective investigating an allegation of sex with a 13-year-old said she "could easily be mistaken for being 16 years old", according to the review.
As details emerged of the latest scandal, which follows similar revelations in other towns, David Cameron said children in Britain have suffered sexual abuse on an "industrial scale".
The Prime Minister, whose Witney constituency is in West Oxfordshire, said the report should be a "wake up call".
Victims, who were mainly aged between 12 and 15, were groomed using drugs, alcohol and gifts before they were physically assaulted, forced into prostitution, raped and drugged.
Their abusers kept them "hooked in" by making the girls dependent on alcohol and drugs, which they then "paid for" with sex.
Investigations of the response of organisations including Oxfordshire County Council and Thames Valley Police found that victims were not believed or were thought to be exaggerating.
Scores of professionals across a string of organisations or departments "took a long time to recognise CSE, used language that appeared at least in part to blame victims and see them as adults, and had a view that little could be done in the face of 'no co-operation'", the report said.
In one instance when a mother reported that her daughter was being persuaded to deal drugs no investigation was carried out by police, while another parent was told it was none of their "business" when their child was missing.
The review was commissioned in 2012 after the activities of a paedophile ring emerged and was founded on the experiences of six victims in that case, which led to the convictions of seven men, Alan Bedford, the author of the independent review, wrote: "What happened to the child victims of the sexual exploitation in Oxfordshire was indescribably awful.
"The child victims and their families feel very let down. Their accounts of how they perceived professional work are disturbing and chastening."
Five of the seven perpetrators convicted over abuse in the county were of Pakistani heritage, while the victims were all white British girls.
The report said: "The association, not of all CSE but group-based CSE, with mainly Pakistan heritage is undeniable."
However, the report said that there was "no evidence ... of any agency not acting when they should have done because of racial sensitivities".
Failures in the official response outlined in the 114-page report include:
:: The issue of CSE was not understood and national guidance was not followed;
:: The "terrible" nature of victims' experiences was not recognised because of a view that they were consenting or bringing problems on themselves;
:: Girls were treated without common courtesy and subjected to "snide remarks";
:: There was an insufficient understanding of the law around consent and a tolerance of sexual activity with children.
:: There was a lack of curiosity about what was happening to the girls;
:: There was insufficient attention to investigating and disrupting the activities of perpetrators compared with efforts used to "contain" behaviour of the "difficult" girls;
:: The organisational response was "weak and lacked any management oversight";
:: Information about worrying cases was not "escalated" to those at the top of organisations;
In response to the question "Could CSE have been identified or prevented earlier?", the report said: "The simple answer is yes."
Maggie Blyth, independent chair of the Oxfordshire Safeguarding Children Board (OSCB), said that "systemic failings" between 2005 and 2010 and "unacceptable delays" in tackling the issue of CSE "allowed offenders to get away with their crimes".
Apologising to victims, she said: " It is shocking that these children were subjected to such appalling sexual exploitation for so long," she said.
"It is clear that between 2005 and 2010, despite the efforts of some front line staff working with children individually, there was no understanding of the type of abuse which later emerged, a culture across all organisations that failed to see that these children were being groomed in an organised way by groups of men and therefore no concerted or organised response across Oxfordshire agencies working with children against this terrible child abuse."
Ms Blyth said there was an "absence of acknowledgement" among social workers, police officers, teachers and health staff that children were victims of CSE, she said, adding that there was a "lack of any understanding of why children were running away and the pull towards their groomers".
S he described the number of known perpetrators of activities exposed in the report as "the tip of an iceberg", adding that there are likely to be more children at risk.
Ms Blyth said she had been assured that organisations identified in the report will look at "whether there is an individual or corporate responsibility for what happened".
The report found that there was no evidence of wilful neglect nor deliberate ignoring of clear signs of CSE. It said that since around 2011 "many lessons have been learned" and services for children vulnerable to CSE "have been improved considerably.
Sara Thornton, chief constable of Thames Valley Police, said the force is "ashamed" of the shortcomings identified in the report.
Jim Leivers, director for children, education and families at Oxfordshire County Council, said: "We fully accept that we made many mistakes and missed opportunities to stop the abuse."
Simon Danczuk, the Rochdale MP who has led campaigns against child exploitation following sex abuse scandals involving other towns and cities, said: "I have spoken before about the rise of the unsackable and unaccountable public sector manager and Oxford is another blatant example of this.
"If we're going to restore faith in our children's services then we need to see heads rolling when there is catastrophic failures on a grand scale as in Oxford."