Many of the details of the sexual grooming case that concluded with the conviction of seven men at the Old Bailey yesterday were too violent and too distressing to be reported upon. But the outline is sufficient. Over the course of eight long years, girls as young as 11 were drugged, raped and sold for sex at a string of properties across Oxford, suffering appallingly sadistic abuse at the hands of a gang of adults by whom they were specifically targeted for exploitation.
Such crimes would be distressing enough in isolation. What is worse is that the authorities could have done something about them so much earlier, but did not. All but one of the girls were living in children’s homes. Yet despite repeated disappearances – and even, in the case of one child, it being the general consensus among staff that she was being groomed – nothing was done. Social workers, too, have any number of questions to answer about so egregious a failure in their duty of care.
The police acquitted themselves no better. The first hint of trouble was as long ago as 2006, when one of the girls reported that she had been held against her will, made to snort cocaine and then left unconscious. Another, a few months later, told officers she had been raped. Yet despite a series of complaints and contacts over the years that followed, the pieces were not put together and the abuse continued.
Police and social workers apologised yesterday – as well they might. But that will hardly answer. It can only be hoped that the Serious Case Review panel, which will now consider the police failures in detail, can go some way to ensuring that such oversights will not be repeated, in Oxford or anywhere else.
Perhaps most disturbing of all is that the Oxford ring is no one-off. Last May, nine men from Rochdale were imprisoned for grooming children for sex. And in November, in Rotherham, another five men were sentenced for similar crimes.
The similarities are striking. In all three cases, the girls were young, white and from troubled backgrounds. In all three cases, the authorities failed either to spot the warning signs or to pursue complaints. And in all three cases, the majority of the perpetrators were Asian.
The cultural dimension to these crimes, while difficult, certainly cannot be ignored. In the Rochdale case, it was even suggested that police were slow to investigate for fear of being perceived as racist. Such sensitivities should not have been allowed to take precedence over children’s safety then; nor can they now that the phenomenon is no longer restricted to just one place, or even just one part of the country.
Equally, however, the question of race must not be allowed to dominate. On-street grooming is not the sole preserve of Asian men, despite the impression created by the three most high-profile cases so far. Indeed, the most detailed research on the phenomenon so far found that, in 43 per cent of cases, the abusers were white.
The central issue here is not the cultural background of the abusers. The central issue is that the grooming gangs can no longer be considered a freak occurrence. The lessons so belatedly learned in Rochdale, Rotherham and Oxford cannot be confined to those cities or the specifics of the gangs – finally – exposed there. These are lessons that must be shared with police forces and children’s services across the country.
That so many children are being so horrifically treated, right under our noses, is a damning indictment of modern Britain.