Only a fraction of the 1,400 victims of child sex exploitation in Rotherham have come forward to access the support and counselling they need in the last year because most still don’t have faith in the town’s authorities, it is feared.
Twelve months on from the bombshell Alexis Jay report that revealed the scale of abuse by child grooming gangs in the town, Rotherham council says only 300 victims are accessing therapy services.
A solicitor representing dozens of local victims in their claim for compensation against the authority and South Yorkshire Police believes fewer than 100 of the girls involved have engaged with the raft of new inquiries and called for a “truly independent agency” offering therapy and support.
Ian Thomas, who started as director of children’s services at the scandal-hit council on January 1, says more social workers have been brought in and the authority’s “inept” IT system replaced. His team is currently supporting 2,300 children, of whom 73 are sexual exploitation cases.
He said the council had invested £500,000 on counselling and therapeutic services but that victims would be dealing with their trauma in different ways, with some moving on or coming to terms with their abuse.
He added: “Others will be only just now feeling confident enough that their stories will be listened to, and that confidence is being engendered by work happening on the ground.”
Professor Alexis Jay shocked the UK with her report, published on August 26 last year. It was already well-known that girls in Rotherham had been subjected to sexual exploitation by gangs of largely Asian men.
The outrage provoked by the Jay Report stemmed from the sheer scale of offending that it outlined and the horrific details included of what had been going on in the town between 1997 and 2013.
Professor Jay said at the time she had found “utterly appalling” examples of “children who had been doused in petrol and threatened with being set alight, threatened with guns, made to witness brutally-violent rapes and threatened they would be next if they told anyone”.
She said: “They were raped by multiple perpetrators, trafficked to other towns and cities in the north of England, abducted, beaten and intimidated.”
David Greenwood of Yorkshire law firm Switalskis, who represents 58 girls subjected to sexual abuse by gangs of men in Rotherham over 16 years, says the much-criticised police and council have made progress in the town in the last 12 months.
But he believes many survivors will only trust the system again once a truly independent agency is brought in.
“Both agencies have improved in Rotherham in the last 12 months but survivors of exploitation will be unwilling to come forward to them unless radical changes are made,” Mr Greenwood said.
“An agency independent from South Yorkshire Police and [the council] is essential for the 1,400 young women who need help. I am aware of only around 50 to 60 girls having come forward. This means there are around 1,350 whose lives could be improved with specialist help.”
Ian Thomas says Rotherham council was planning ahead for many more victims coming forward as a result of the National Crime Agency’s Operation Stovewood investigation into abuse in the town, which he expected to identify a “very high number of potential perpetrators”.
Asked if he agreed that there was still work to do in winning back the confidence of victims and the people of Rotherham in general, he said: “Absolutely.”
He added: “What we are seeing is the green shoots of recovery, green shoots of progress. There is much more to do to gain the trust and confidence of our communities and those that have been abused, I have no doubt about that.
“When you look at what the council has been through since Professor Jay, it is unprecedented. Inevitably and quite rightly there were shockwaves through the system, when Professor Jay’s report was published.
“Then what followed was an Ofsted inspection for four weeks, then Louise Casey’s team were on site for a number of months, and that resulted in the council’s leadership standing down and being replaced with commissioners.
“Any organisation having to deal with that, as well as English Defence League marches, right-wing marches, are going to find it challenging moving forward.
“When you consider all of that, I think there is tremendous credit to staff, showing great resolve and resilience in continuing to deliver services to children every single day, and tremendous credit to them.”
Lesley McLean, manager for the independent charity Victim Support in Yorkshire, said the scale of sexual exploitation in Rotherham meant work was needed to stop the offences happening again.
She said: “Victim Support identified a real need in victims for one familiar face to support them through the whole experience of deciding whether to report abuse, being interviewed by the police, and their case making its way through the criminal justice system.
“We are providing that consistent support through our Vulnerable Victims project, which is funded by South Yorkshire PCC.”
Ms McLean added: “Victim Support’s specially trained staff and volunteers offer free, confidential information and support to anyone affected by crime - regardless of when the crime took place or if the police are involved.
“Call our Supportline team on 08 08 16 89 111 or visit victimsupport.org.uk to find out how we can help.”