Councils across the UK have been urged to learn the lessons of Rotherham. Adrian Pearson looks at why, even at the abuse epicentre, there are still unanswered questions.
SUCH is the extent of the rot in Rotherham that 12 weeks in, we are no closer to the full story emerging.
On August 26 Professor Alexis Jay revealed what many in the council must surely have known for decades; hundreds if not thousands of girls were abused by mainly Asian men because the authorities either didn’t care or were past the point where they could intervene.
On Monday this week MPs urged councils across the country to check their child safety measures, making clear that the abuse seen in Yorkshire is unlikely to end at Rotherham’s borders.
So far, we know that repeated chances to protect girls were missed. But despite widespread blame, it has only really been the local organisations who have carried the can.
A council leader, two senior local authority officers and, eventually, a police commissioner, are among the figures to have stepped down in the blame game, but in the grand scheme of things these are at best mid-league.
The too-big-to-blame organisations, the Home Office, Ofsted, the police, all seem to have made the promise of lessons learned and moved on.
There are many parts still to come in the shameful tale. Among these is a report by Louise Casey into council failings, ordered by Secretary of State Eric Pickles, which will suggest what, if anything, needs to be removed from the council in terms of legal responsibilities.
At the Department for Education the Secretary of State asked commissioner Malcolm Newsam to report on child safety failings, with reports due this month and January.
In the Home Office, a search is underway, finally, by NSPCC boss Peter Wanless to see what happened to abuse evidence sent more than a decade ago but apparently never acted upon.
In the House of Commons the Communities Select Committee promised to keep the investigation alive by revealing it will bring in Ofsted to answer questions, alongside a call for a committee in a future parliament to take evidence on what has happened to past and present council staff who failed children.
And in Yorkshire, there is still more to come. Rotherham Council is carrying out a search for the missing minutes of abuse meetings, with a promise to bring in an external auditor to aid the process.
South Yorkshire Police is also still to report on its failings, with 10 staff to be looked at by the IPCC watchdog.
And finally, in the long list of reports still to come, the National Crime Agency is leading an investigation into South Yorkshire Police and possible criminality among officers and misconduct at the council.
One area yet to come in for any serious scrutiny though is the one factor which led to the abuse – the attitudes of some men, especially some Asian men, towards young white girls from a poor background.
When the Jay Report was published there was outrage as it emerged many girls were abused because professionals did not want to intervene for risk of being branded racists.
At first, the Home Secretary and others hit out at how political correctness had prevented horrific crimes being properly investigated. The inquiry though quickly moved on to the role of the mainly white, middle class professionals who in many cases were paid taxpayers’ money to safeguard children.
Rightly, these people have been asked to explain their failures, and in many cases have lost their jobs. But as yet, the men who committed the crimes behind the report are subject only to criminal proceedings, with few wanting to tackle the suggestion that a community’s culture is a contributing factor for a minority of men.
There are two reasons to suggest why the attention has never really shifted back to Asian gangs. First, as Ofsted today points out, it’s likely to be a lot more widespread than one ethnic group.
Today’s Ofsted report states: “Cases in Rotherham, Rochdale, Derby, Oxford and other towns and cities have uncovered not only the previously hidden scale of the problem but also a particular pattern of abuse involving predominantly White British girls as victims and gangs of predominantly Asian heritage men as perpetrators.
As Professor Jay made clear, faced with this type of offending pattern, senior leaders must show political and moral courage.
“They must never allow misguided fears about offending cultural sensitivities to get in the way of confronting child sexual exploitation wherever it occurs.”
But it adds: “It is inherently dangerous for any child protection agency to assume that they need not worry about this type of child abuse because the stereotypical offender or victim profile does not match their own local demographics.”
The second reason the perpetrators seem no longer to be the focus is more sinister. Time and time again, the evidence in Rotherham has pointed to a conspiracy, at the very least to cover up failings, but often at the cost of allowing abuse to continue.
Claims of a cover-up start at the level of possibly incompetent council staff and end at the Home Office.
Just over 10 years ago a researcher working on a Home Office-commissioned look into child prostitution sent some apparently shocking early findings to Whitehall.
Her Rotherham Council bosses found out and tried to sack her, the researcher’s files were raided one weekend and the Home Office says it doesn’t know what happened to the documents.
The police then decide they did not like too many questions being asked, with the researcher saying South Yorkshire Police officers threatened to send her details to the abusers involved, a claim now being investigated by the National Crime Agency.
Another abuse charity made similar claims, with one worker eventually backing down amid fears an officer was handing a pimp details of girls speaking out. Again, the Home Office was told of the vulnerable people involved, but nothing happened.
Even Prof Jay herself came up against suspicious scenes in her council-commissioned inquiry.
Four years worth of meetings seem to have had their minutes mysteriously disappear, with the council now promising to bring in external auditors to try and find decade-old evidence of council abuse meetings.
The fear now is that there will be more to come as other councils elsewhere go through their own investigations.
As Jon Brown of the NSPCC puts it in response to the Ofsted report: “The warning lights have been flashing for some time now with regard to child sexual exploitation, so it is worrying that some local authorities are lagging behind in the fight against this despicable crime.”