The child victim had been repeatedly raped before she found the courage to report her story to the police. She had tried to escape, but the perpetrators had broken her brother’s legs and smashed the windows of her parent’s home as a warning.
When she finally visited the police station, she received a text from her main abuser who made it perfectly clear what would happen to her 11-year-old sister if she spoke out. “Your choice,” he wrote repeatedly – and the girl refused to give a statement.
The case – from 2001 and detailed in today’s independent report – was the last straw for the Home Office researcher who had persuaded the young victim to go to the police. She wrote to the chief constable of South Yorkshire police and at a subsequent meeting with a senior officer and council staff was firmly told never to do such a thing again. When she handed in her research data to the Home Office, the council suspended her erroneously, and then sidelined her so that her part of a report on prostitution was never completed.
The story highlights the atmosphere of cover-up and collusion at Rotherham Council. Nobody in the upper echelons of the child-care system could say they were not aware of the raft of warnings. But a collective failure of leadership meant continued, well-founded warnings about the widespread sexual abuse of children were suppressed, ignored or played down because of short-term political considerations.
The priority in Rotherham was jobs and investment and, to some senior figures, any focus on child sexual exploitation was an unwelcome sideshow. In one extraordinary episode in 2009, a senior unnamed official shouted and swore through an hour-long meeting as he complained that Rotherham had “too many looked-after children” which accounted for the council’s spending problems.
The report highlights the highly dysfunctional atmosphere among both officers and councillors which led to the “blatant” failure of its leadership. One person told the inquiry team “the member barometer re sexual matters was skewed”.
The report details an atmosphere of bullying, machismo and sexism at a council where senior women officers were not welcomed and difficult issues of rape and sexual exploitation of children could not be discussed. It heard evidence that the council was a “very grubby environment” in which to work where one woman was encouraged to wear shorter skirts to get on and a senior member said women were fit only for “cooking, washing and darning”.
And yet Professor Alexis Jay said that three reports in 2002, 2003 and 2006 could not have been clearer in their description of what was going on. The first was suppressed because senior council officials did not believe the evidence. The next two, that linked child abuse and drugs, were ignored.
Police colluded with the council’s inaction. The report said that officers from the South Yorkshire force regarded “many child victims with contempt”. The report heard of two cases where fathers tracked down their daughters and tried to remove them from houses where they were being abused only to be arrested themselves when police were called.
The councillor with responsibility for children’s services in Rotherham for part of the period covered by the report was Shaun Wright, the current police and crime commissioner – the elected watchdog – of the force. Political opponents called on him to consider his position.
The attacks were carried out predominantly by Asian gangs, but some staff at the council were nervous about identifying the ethnic origins of the attackers for fear of being called racists. Others said they had clear direction from their managers not to do so, according to the report.
Some councillors believed it was a one-off problem – dispelled most clearly today by Professor Jay’s verdict on the scale of the abuse that went largely ignored by most of the people that mattered for more than a decade.