Comparisons are already being drawn to what happened in Rotherham following news of the latest UK child-grooming scandal, in which it is claimed up to 1,000 children may have been victims of child sexual exploitation over a 40-year period in Telford.
A Sunday Mirror newspaper investigation gathered allegations of abuse dating back to the 80s in the Shropshire town, including cases involving girls as young as 11 who were allegedly drugged, beaten and raped.
It has been reported many of the perpetrators are believed to have gone unpunished, and that similar abuse is still continuing in the area.
Seven men were jailed in 2013 following a police inquiry into child prostitution in the Telford area, and West Mercia Police have issued a statement in response to the Sunday Mirror investigation saying tackling the issue of child abuse is its ‘number one priority’.
The force says it uses ‘all resources and technology available to prosecute anyone who sexually offends against children, whether that offending took place today, yesterday or decades ago.’
Telford & Wrekin Council has had its say also, stressing it is ‘constantly on the lookout for indicators of child sexual exploitation’ so that it can pass information on to police and ‘bring these evil criminals to justice’ – highlighting that further cases are now going through the court system as a result.
Despite this, it admits the matter of child sexual exploitation is an ‘issue right across the UK and has been for a long time’, adding ‘anyone who says otherwise is burying their head in the sand.’
So, the question is how and why are have many young children become victims, and why do continue to do so?
Children lost to the authorities are often very much under the control of abusers
I suspect the reality is that many cities in the UK have this kind of problem, just as there are many serious case reviews which are only brought to our attention when covered by the media, such as the tragic case of Victoria Climbie.
The reality is that gangs of predatory abusers have long targeted vulnerable children, particularly those in the care system. Abusers are highly skilled at grooming children, abusing them and then compelling their silence. Sadly, even the presence of a supportive family is sometimes not enough to protect a child.
It is a shadowy world which I believe is too often ignored by social services and the police, a typical case being that of a teenage girl labelled as “out of control” by the authorities and who is given up for lost.
The reality is that the same girl is often very much under the control of the abusers.
There is also a role here for local politicians. Children may not have the vote, but child abuse has now become far more of a political issue, so politicians ignore the problem at their peril.
It just doesn’t do for local councillors to hide away and pretend that it will go away, or that it was all a very long time ago. It happened on their watch, and now is the time for them to step up to the plate.
Moreover the fact that there was a previous prosecution in Telford should not, for a moment, make us think that “justice has been done.”
That prosecution would have shone a spotlight on just one part of a very much wider story. We know from Rotherham that children were trafficked from one city to another, and effectively sold to abusers. This is a network that reaches nationwide.
Some years ago I remember a talk given by a lady who ran a charity supporting vulnerable children, like those in Telford and Rotherham. She described in stark terms how the abusers would turn up in vehicles and spirit their victims away quite openly in front of her and her colleagues. She described the attitude of the police and social services as improving, as they realised the reality of what was happening to these children.
One of the most pernicious fruits of abuse is silence, as a judge once said. It is difficult enough for adults to talk about the abuse that happened to them, when they were children. These are crimes where children are made to feel that they are trapped in a situation, from which there is no escape.
The threats of violence that are routinely made against them, are very real indeed.
What support should be made available for survivors of abuse?
Survivors of abuse want transparency – they need to know what the authorities were doing at the time, and why they were failed as children. This is where an independent inquiry comes in.
They also need support, so they can speak to the authorities without fear of harm. They need to have the sense that the authorities stand behind and beside them. There is now a comprehensive Victims Code, which sets out the kind of information and support survivors are entitled to.
They need a clear and unambiguous acknowledgement from the authorities as to what went wrong and an apology. There is nothing more infuriating that having to listen to someone in authority say it was someone else’s fault.
Finally survivors need redress – and one example of this is that Redress Scheme set up by the London Borough of Lambeth to compensate children who were resident in their care homes.
This wide ranging scheme also provides for other kinds of support, such as counselling and help getting back into employment.
There are other routes to compensation also, such as those provided by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA), the civil courts and the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman.