The distressing details of the Oxford child abuse case raise echoes of a similar case last year, involving the grooming of children for sex in Rochdale. In both, under-age white girls were the victims. All or most of the perpetrators were Asian men. The girls were from vulnerable backgrounds, including local authority care homes. Drugs, alcohol and violence were used to coerce the girls – and in both cases other men paid to use the girls for sex.
Many people will be tempted to ask why lessons were not learnt from Rochdale which might have shortened the ordeal of the girls in Oxford.
In fact, for all the similarities, there are key differences between the cases, which, despite the time-lag in the trials, were actually taking place over the same period. The Rochdale abuse was from 2008-09. The Oxford ordeal stretched over eight years from 2004 to 2012.
The greatest difference lay in the motivation of the two groups of abusers, according to Mohammed Shafiq, of the Ramadhan Foundation, a Muslim youth organisation, who was one of the first Asian community leaders to acknowledge that a disproportionate number of the men involved in on-street grooming were British Pakistanis. “The Rochdale abusers were taxi drivers and takeaway workers using the girls for quick sex. When they took money from other men to have sex with the girls the amounts were around £20-£30 a time,” says Mr Shafiq.
“Oxford is much more to do with money. The men exploiting the girls were charging others £200-£600 a time and bringing eight to 10 men a day into hotels and restrooms. It was much more organised.”
That view is echoed by Alyas Karmani, a Muslim imam and psychologist, who works in the Pakistani community in major UK cities to combat attitudes that tolerate or encourage sexual violence against women. “It’s important to understand the different pathways in and out of the offending behaviour,” he says. “The ringleader in Rochdale was a serial paedophile but the men in that case were not paedophiles in the classic sense,” he says. “They were not looking for under-age girls; they took the opportunity when they were presented with it.
“Oxford is a more gang-related crime. They were younger men, linked to drug-dealing and financial crime along the M4 corridor.”
In the Oxford case, the sexual violence was more extreme. One of the victims described what she had undergone as “torture sex”. Another was told the gang would cut off her head if she did not perform oral sex on them all.
“In the Oxford case the humiliation and torturing was much more sadistic,” says Mr Karmani, who works with the police in such cases. The detail was so gruesome that the media only published about 10 per cent of what the police uncovered.
By contrast, in the Rochdale case some of the girls were so confused by the nature of their abuse that during the trial they were still insisting the men involved loved them.
What both cases highlight is the progress that has been made against child sexual exploitation – and the work yet to be done. The Muslim community, which was so long in denial about the acts committed by a few of its members, has begun to confront the problem. “We can’t refute the statistics that a disproportionate number of those involved in grooming are British Asian men,” says Mr Karmani. But the problem is not confined to young Asian men. It is nothing to do with Muslim culture, he says, though that culture does have traditions that can help counter such thinking. Some of his strategies, as an imam, are straightforwardly religious. “That thinking is not compatible with Islam,” he says. But it also trades on the strong family traditions of Asian culture. “‘Would you want someone to do that to your sister?’ I ask them.”
And Muslim community leaders are anxious that their acknowledgement of the problem should not focus disproportionate blame on British Asians. “Child sex abuse happens in all communities,” says Mohammed Shafiq. “The white abusers tend to be loners or do it online, or are friends of the victim’s family. It’s only in on-street grooming that there is an over-representation of Pakistani men.”
Police, social workers, academics and children’s charity workers agree. Greater Manchester Police, in whose area the Rochdale offences took place, says 95 per cent of the men on its sex offenders register are white. Just five per cent are Asian. Wendy Shepherd, child sexual exploitation project manager with Barnardo’s in the north of England, says that most abusers are white and most child sex exploitation happens in the home.
Asians can be the victims too. Mr Karmani cites the case of a Bangladeshi father he has worked with whose daughter was being groomed by a Turkish gang who were giving her heroin. “In the cases which have been given a high profile by the media Asian men have been caught because the group they have operated in is big and blatant,” he says.
But most of the lessons that need to be learnt are among state authorities. “Social workers and police failed to take victims seriously: they said they had made an ‘informed choice’ which was wrong,” says Jim Taylor, who has taken over as chief executive at Rochdale Borough Council. “The Council and other agencies missed opportunities to offer assistance.”
In Rochdale, that learning process is well underway. Disciplinary investigations are being conducted into the culpability of three individuals who have been suspended pending the inquiry. An independent review of processes and procedures has been set up under an outside expert. But even before it reports a number of new measures have been put in place.
“We’ve appointed a new leadership team with a wealth of relevant experience,” says Mr Taylor. It is led by Gladys Rhodes White who some years ago set up a pioneering project called Engage to prevent and prosecute child sex abuse in nearby Blackburn. The team has re-examined the files of the 47 victims from the original cases and two more sets of prosecutions are in the pipeline.
“We’ve had awareness workshops for 10,000 children in every local secondary school and 1,500 council staff have had training,” says Mr Taylor. “And we have a Child Sexual Exploitation car staffed by police and youth workers patrolling hotspots.”
Rochdale social services now have a single point of contact for all referrals of concern on child sex abuse. Local taxi-drivers are more regulated, with Criminal Records Bureau checks having been made more consistent. There is a monthly forum where police, youth service, youth offending team, social workers and private providers exchange information. A scheme to help police share data across all 10 Manchester boroughs is being investigated, though it is encountering data protection problems. “There’s still a lot to do,” says Jim Taylor, “but we’re improving rapidly.”
There is more to do in the Muslim community. “There’s a disconnect between the elders and the young people,” says Mr Karmani. It reaches across poor Asian communities in the northern mill towns and comparatively affluent Muslim communities in places like Oxford. “We need better youth programmes but there’s not enough funding to be pro-active,” he said.
But Muslims want action in wider society. “There are serious questions to be asked about the behaviour of the owners of the hotels who allowed these men to check in with young girls and then have multiple visitors to their rooms,” says Mr Shafiq.
Mr Taylor wants to see other changes. A council from another part of the country can send a child in its care to a private children’s home elsewhere, where care is cheaper. Rochdale has a large number of outsiders in such homes. But those far-away councils can manage the care of that child “by remote” without any duty to inform or liaise with Rochdale social services. That must change. So must the fact that Ofsted doesn’t have to inform local social services of the results of its inspections of smaller care homes
But responsibility to stamp out child abuse must go far wider, says Ms Rhodes White. “I want the message out there to the public. If you see something not right, like older men with young girls buying drinks and gifts, don’t be afraid to report it.” That responsibility cannot be limited to one community or one set of public officials. It is the job, she says, of us all.
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