Rotherham sex abuse: 'The utter
brutality is what shocked me most'
Professor Alexis Jay, the author of the Rotherham sex abuse report, is determined that the young victims should be heard
Professor Alexis Jay: 'You must tell people exactly what has happened. It is important for the victims that their dreadful experiences should be acknowledged'
30 Aug 2014
By Elizabeth Grice
To begin with, the task in hand was straightforward, businesslike, almost formulaic. Professor Alexis Jay had investigated complex cases of child sexual exploitation before. She knew the form. When Rotherham council called her in to conduct an inquiry into its own troubling record, she had a clear idea of how to “come at” it. Minutes, notes, background reading… the necessary apparatus of research was set in motion.
It was when she started to read the case files and talk to people that her professional detachment was shaken. Something unimaginably evil was unfolding and on a scale that defied belief. Pages and pages of terrible stories from young girls who had been trafficked and raped by gangs of mainly Asian men over many years; of parents at their wits' end while police and social services looked the other way.
“The utter brutality is what shocked me most,” she says. “It is really hard to describe it – the horrible nature of the sexual acts and the brutality of the controls these girls were subjected to. There was a vast amount of truly horrific material. I was taken aback at how callous, how violent, the operations were. These were girls of 11 and 12. They were children. The violence was worst. Petrol dousing was used as a form of intimidation. Oral and anal sex were so often a means of control and punishment. It was truly frightening that people in our country could be doing that.”
Taken aback. Truly frightening. Those are not the words you expect from an academic, a battle-hardened former chief inspector of social work, a woman who has spent more than 30 years working in deprived communities. They were not so very different from your words or mine on the morning Prof Jay's devastating report was made public this week.
“I had no idea when I started out of the true scale of child-sex offending or the brutality,” she says. “You would not be human not to be affected. I would not like it if I wasn't. It made me all the more determined to make some kind of redress for the victims. To say: 'I believe you.' I understand [from conducting an investigation into child sexual exploitation (CSE) in the Western Isles] how much it means to child victims to have their story told. And to be believed .”
Prof Jay says she was unprepared for “the catalogue of utter helplessness” that spilled out, both among parents and tenacious frontline youth workers when they tried to raise the alarm. Under the restraint, her soft Scottish burr is scathing. “Oh, it was quite shocking how callous the police were in the early years, the attitudes about 'consent', the inaction around missing people. Parents just gave up on the police. They wondered: what's the point? Some wrote letters to politicians and councillors in desperation: 'Please stop this,' 'How can I get help?' There were a lot of good procedures but no one checked if they were working.”
She describes the case of a mother – not mentioned in the report – who found 125 names of men on her young daughter's mobile phone, and a description of the activities in which they had been engaged. “There was no doubt what kind of activities they were.” When the woman handed the phone in to the police, she was allegedly told that it would be a breach of the child's human rights if they were to act on it. In some cases, if parents went to the police, they were threatened with fire-bombing themselves, says Prof Jay.
Disturbingly, she found that senior social workers considered child abuse as a lesser problem than neglect because statistically it was smaller. She quoted a child protection manager as saying that CSE formed only 2.3 per cent of the team's work and should therefore be kept in proportion. Young children were the priority [following the tragedy of Victoria Climbie , the eight-year-old who was tortured and murdered by her guardians in 2000] and older children dropped down the scale. “You cannot prioritise abuse,” says Prof Jay. “You cannot treat it as a hierarchy. It is all terrible – and it has all got to be attended to. The two per cent of referrals to the police are the most serious forms of abuse you can imagine.”
The current pandemonium about which negligent police officers, social workers or councillors should fall on their swords or be ejected from office does not concern her. Her report's condemnation of official blindness and ineptitude, fuelled by a fear of appearing racist, is as far as she is prepared to go – and it is a long way. Now her overriding hope is that her findings will lead to proper rehabilitation for victims – past and present, for she is in no doubt that depravity is still rife.
“Child welfare must come first. There was no long-term support for these girls. At 15 and 16 they were discarded as too old for the purposes of the perpetrators and left with broken lives. Groomed by drugs and drink, needless to say there was a huge amount of self-loathing and guilt which led some of them to self-harm and to attempt suicide. That is not something you can fix with six sessions with a psychologist. One abused young person who asked for help was offered advice on benefits.”
She is particularly appalled by the wilful ignorance of what constitutes sexual exploitation. When a 12-year-old girl was found to have had sex with five adults (two of whom were let off with a caution) a CID officer claimed that it should not be categorised as sexual abuse because the girl had been “consensual in every incident”.
At times she laughs, but it is the hollow laugh of incredulity. The numbers are overwhelming – 1,400 is a conservative estimate of Rotherham's young victims. The evidence was always there, but largely ignored. At one point, 318 damaged girls were being helped by a youth project and of those 90 needed one-to-one help for 18 months. “I don't know how anyone could think: We're coping here. How could you not think that was a crisis? It is hard to understand the mentality of collective denial.”
Prof Jay's report stands out for its uncompromising language and the directness of its aim. “Nobody could say 'We didn't know'.” “South Yorkshire Police regarded many child victims with contempt.” “The abuse is not confined to the past but continues to this day.” “Over the first 12 years covered by this inquiry, the collective failures of political and officer leadership were blatant.” She has made sure the charges will reverberate for a long time.
“Plain language has always been my goal,” she says. “You must tell people exactly what has happened. It is important not to fudge the issues or protect people from the worst aspects. And it is important for the victims that their dreadful experiences should be acknowledged in a public way. I feel sorry for the good and decent people of Rotherham in all this. I don't know what you can do about that. I am sorry for the effect on the town's reputation – but it is important to speak the truth.”
Her hope is that Rotherham council will work with its ethnic groups in a different way to tackle the “hidden problem” of sexual exploitation in the future. Instead of relying on so-called community leaders to represent the Pakistani-heritage community, she suggests, it would be more profitable to work with the Muslim women. “It is an issue that affects the women. We need to be much more open and direct. The imams and elected members ended up being a barrier rather than a conduit.”
Prof Jay, 65, describes the days following the publication of her report as “a whirlwind”. She lives in Glasgow but has not seen her home or her husband for several days. Though she has played a leading role in shaping key health, social care and children's services policy in Scotland for years, she has cultivated a near-invisible personal profile.
In 2005, she was invited by the Scottish Government to set up the first independent inspection body for social services in Scotland and from 2011-2013 was its first chief social work advisor. When she was appointed chairman of the Centre for Excellence and Looked After Children in Scotland (CELCIS) last year, tribute was paid to her “passionate commitment to improving services for vulnerable people”. She received an OBE in 2012 for services to children and families.
Three previous reports about child sexual exploitation in Rotherham were suppressed or ignored and their authors subjected to “personal hostility”.
Does she fear reprisals? “The subject matter tends to attract rather odd people.” Her laugh is genuine this time. “I am confident of being able to deal with them.”
Source : ‘Daily Telegraph'
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