SENIOR local politicians and council officials knew “many” children in Rotherham were at risk of sexual exploitation almost a decade ago, a former high-ranking civil servant said.
Sonia Sharp, who was director of children’s services between 2005 and 2008, said she was briefed by “politicians, senior managers and frontline staff about the issue of sexual exploitation of young people” when she joined the authority.
Dr Sharp, who has worked for the Australian state of Victoria since 2012, said staff in Rotherham feared that this was “the tip of an iceberg” but were faced with the predominant view that the abuse victims were “promiscuous teenagers in consensual relationships”.
Her claims put more pressure on Shaun Wright, who was Labour cabinet member responsible for children’s services while Dr Sharp was in the post in the middle of a 16-year period when 1,400 youngsters suffered wide-scale sexual exploitation including gang rapes, grooming and trafficking.
He has said he was “simply not aware of the scale of the problem” and is refusing to quit his current £85,000 role as South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC).
In a statement, Dr Sharp apologised to the victims, saying “You can’t be a director of children’s services and not take responsibility for what happens to children.”
She added: “As soon as I commenced in April 2005 as Rotherham’s first director of children’s services, I was briefed by politicians, senior managers and frontline staff about the issue of sexual exploitation of young people.
“We knew that there were many children in the community at risk and feared that this was the tip of an iceberg.
“Nine years ago, our greatest challenge was to change the predominant view that these young people were ‘promiscuous teenagers in consensual relationships’, rather than victims of child abuse.”
Dr Sharp was among former Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council staff and police officers in the town who were interviewed by Professor Alexis Jay for the report published on Tuesday which revealed the scale of abuse.
Prof Jay said yesterday that given the information available to agencies by April 2005, “nobody could say ‘I didn’t know’.”
Dr Sharp added that the report highlighted some of the work her department did under her leadership, including abuse awareness programmes, improving links between police and social services, and creating a role to tackle child sexual exploitation.
She added: “I regret every case of exploitation of vulnerable girls that was not prevented, but feel strongly that our collective efforts led to gradual but essential improvements in the situation for many young people.”
She was backed by her current employer. Richard Bolt, secretary at Victoria’s department of education and early childhood development, said: “I have no doubt that Sonia tackled the issue of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham with maximum commitment, professionalism and focus.”
Ged Fitzgerald, Rotherham’s chief executive between 2001 and 2003, is now chief executive of Liverpool City Council and was also interviewed for Prof Jay’s report.
A Liverpool spokeswoman said neither the authority nor Mr Fitzgerald would comment.
South Wales’ Deputy Chief Constable Matt Jukes, who was policing commander for the Rotherham area from 2006 to 2010, was backed by his current employer.
South Wales’ PCC, the former Labour minister Alun Michael, said Mr Jukes had “proved himself as an outstanding leader and someone who seeks to address problems upfront”.
Mr Michael added: “His involvement at Rotherham was at a time which the report states the police became more proactive, better liaison was established and child sexual exploitation became a priority and I am satisfied that there is nothing in the report that in any way undermines the confidence we have in DCC Jukes as a leader.”
Erica Leach, who was child protection co-ordinator at Rotherham between 1998 and 2003, was independent child protection co-ordinator at Nottinghamshire County Council for three years until earlier this year.
Steve Edwards, service director for Children’s Social Care at Nottinghamshire County Council, said: “We can confirm that the named individual worked in Nottinghamshire for three years and is no longer employed by us.”