It is more than ten months since former social worker Alexis Jay lifted the lid on the horrifying scale of child sex abuse that has beset Rotherham for the best part of two decades and the failure of local bodies that allowed it to happen.
The resultant scandal prompted a tidal wave of anger and disgust, a series of resignations by local politicians and senior council employees and the announcement of several new investigations in a bid to fully uncover the scale of criminality and neglect.
And officials from the National Crime Agency (NCA), the body brought in to lead the criminal probe into the town’s child grooming gangs, said yesterday that it could be another two or three years, at least, before their investigations are complete.
Trevor Pearce, the officer in overall command of the NCA’s probe, named Operation Stovewood, told a press conference in Sheffield yesterday of the hugely complex nature of unravelling the ever-growing list of potential suspects, which is currently around the 300 mark.
Prof Jay’s landmark report last August gave an estimate of 1,400 victims who had been subjected to abuse at the hands of gangs of mostly Asian men, a total said to be a “very good estimate” by the agency dubbed “the British FBI”.
Mr Pearce said: “I would be surprised if in two or three years time we weren’t still processing people through the criminal justice system.
“Equally, the work which we have done is there for the future. Let’s not forget that many of these people who have been victimised, they may not have seen themselves as victims yet, or have yet to reach their personal tipping point about where they think it is right to come forward and disclose.”
Prof Jay’s report painted a pictures of hundreds of teenagers, mainly girls, being exploited with impunity, with police and senior council officers failing to tackle the problem or take it seriously.
Reports dating back as far as 2002 accused South Yorkshire Police and Rotherham Council of indifference to what was happening under their noses.
But Prof Jay said that instead of tackling the issue, senior police and council officers claimed the data in the report had been “fabricated or exaggerated” and subjected the report’s author to “personal hostility,” leading to “suspicions of collusion and cover up”.
The NCA yesterday declined to be drawn on the extent of the failings by local agencies, saying these were for other bodies such as the Independent Police Complaints Commission to investigate.
But Mr Pearce said those who had committed “dreadful offences” against young girls, mostly white and under 16, in Rotherham “need to face justice and have their day in court”.
He said: “I thought long and hard at the start of this about what a successful outcome would look like. Is it that there will be x-hundred people going through the criminal justice system successfully? Clearly that is the normal one we use.
“There is an outcome that those victims who we have come into contact with feel they have been listened to, and they have had a better experience. There is a third element, which is, when is the community of Rotherham able to have confidence in the statutory agencies, that their vulnerable ones are being looked after?” He said part of the criteria was if local victims could feel they had been given a fair hearing and “been approached properly and professionally”.
Steve Baldwin, senior investigating officer for Stovewood, said: “I know that there are more victims yet to be identified and for us to reach out to. Progress will be best achieved at present by tackling what we have now and demonstrating through our actions that we deserve the trust and confidence of others.”
Reflecting on what his agency has uncovered so far, Mr Pearce said: “Clearly for a large number of young girls their lives have been stolen. Reflecting on the dreams and the views you have got about your future life when you are 13, when you are 25, 30 or 35 that hasn’t happened. Someone has stolen your life.”