Maggie Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England, speaks about the interim findings of her Office’s nationwide inquiry into the scope, scale and prevalence of child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups in England
“I thought I was the only one. The Only one in the world” is my Office’s report on the prevalence and patterns of child sexual exploitation in the two contexts of gangs and groups in England, published on November 21st. 100% of police forces, 88% of English Local Authorities with relevant responsibilities, and 66% of relevant and contacted health bodies, submitted evidence to the first year of a two year inquiry into this difficult and troubling subject. Deputy Commissioner Sue Berelowitz is leading on this work for the Office, supported by a small staff team and a panel of recognised national experts in the field including eminent researchers.
For the first time we are presenting thoroughly collated and analysed data on, in headline terms, who is doing what, to whom, where. The conclusions are a wakeup call to all in the system. Sexual abuse in gangs (closely aligned, often young, largely male alliances based on geographical territory, criminal intent, loyalty, codes of dress and behaviour) is visited usually on girls who are gang-associated or living in gang-affected neighbourhoods. It is closely associated with fear, intimidation, and threats of violence against the victim or her family.
Victims are used as part of the gang culture. Sexual abuse perpetrated by groups is associated with looser associations of adults, usually male, from every ethnic, religious and cultural group and of every age. Such abuse may or may not be associated with money changing hands between perpetrators who access and abuse the victims. The latter may be boys but are more usually girls. They include young people who are already very vulnerable, but these groups are not exclusively targeted.
Many victims have suffered abuse in family circumstances before they are abused by outsiders, and much abuse begins in the home, or in close associations and friendship groups.
Sexual exploitation and abuse are not the sole preserve of difficult, downtrodden or otherwise challenged areas, and they are certainly not confined to rundown parts of our towns and cities. It is no exaggeration, from what police forces are telling us across England, to say that it is happening across the country. It is blind to class and socio-economic circumstances.
Children and young people who are themselves abused may be used to help groom and “hook in” others to the abuse they have themselves suffered. They find it hard to disclose what is happening, and in too many places in the country many young witnesses said it is harder still to be listened to when they do say something.
The panel visited 14 English localities as part of the evidence gathering process and were saddened to hear seasoned and specialist professionals referring to sexual exploitation and abuse victims as “prostitutes” when at under 16 years old they are of course, by law, not able to consent to sex with anybody, let alone an abuser. The panel also heard specialists speak of abused children “liking the glamour” of a “chosen lifestyle” and “engaging in risky behaviours” as if they were, or could be, held responsible for the abuse they were suffering. They were equally saddened to witness specialists who seemed blind to some patterns of abuse because the media has somehow decided that only some ethic and cultural groups of men abuse, and only some ethnic and cultural groups of girls are abused.
This report calls on everybody in the system to begin to see the warning signs: children who go missing, who suddenly have a ready supply of cash, gifts, new phones and new friends, children who display over-sexualised behaviours in school, who turn up at A&E with particular injuries, or repeatedly present at sexual health clinics with STIs.
Year two’s Inquiry will go further into good practice in many English localities, and what we can all learn, in policy and practice, to do to stop the outrages we report on in year one. It is not easy reading, but it is necessary that consciousness is raised and action follows. These are our children, all of them, and all of us. Time to act.