And a year on from the bombshell Alexis Jay report which laid bare the scale of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, South Yorkshire’s police and crime commissioner says he is still at a loss to understand why police in the town turned away from hundreds of young victims.
Dr Alan Billings was elected last year as a direct result of last August’s Jay Report, after his predecessor Shaun Wright was forced to resign in its wake.
The retired Anglican priest and former deputy leader of Sheffield city council recalled how the scale of the offending in Rotherham revealed “seemed scarcely believable”.
He said everyone - public and police - first had to come to terms with the reality of what Professor Jay uncovered.
“We had to first of all accept that what Professor Jay had turned up was true, that this was the reality,” he said.
“And that took a lot of believing because of the sheer scale of it. So I think there was a period of time when the police had to recognise that this was true, that this was the reality and that took a bit of time.
“And then, of course, to have to search their own consciences and search their records and their past to understand what had gone wrong.”
Dr Billings came into office last year with a stated commitment to putting child sexual exploitation at the top of the force’s agenda.
He said he has made sure more officers are dedicated to the problem and has implemented an independent review of what went wrong, due to report by the end of the year. He said the Victims and Survivors Panel he set up is now informing South Yorkshire Police’s practice and training.
Dr Billings said: “I still don’t fully understand how the police could turn away from young girls who were being exploited but, whatever the answers, they do not excuse people, who should have recognised a crime, from failing to act.
“But I do know that the nature and scale of child sexual exploitation is only just being understood and I feel that with every meeting of the Victims, Survivors and their Families Panel we are getting closer to some of the answers.
“The survivors I meet are very clear. Very few people understood then the insidious nature of grooming. They didn’t understand what was happening themselves until it was too late and they had been trapped in destructive patterns of behaviour.
“They were not seen as vulnerable children, young girls, who had fallen in love with men who, they thought, loved them and showed them, at first, the affection and attention they craved.”
He said: “The authorities, who should have known better, by and large failed to extricate themselves from that more general cultural context. They failed to educate themselves, and us.”
Dr Billings said he believes the force and its chief constable, David Crompton, do now “get it”, in terms of what went wrong in Rotherham.
But he said: “I don’t think the public of South Yorkshire will feel happy until they start to see the prosecutions coming through and I think by the end of the year we should begin to see that.”
Rotherham’s police commander, Chief Superintendent Jason Harwin, said: “Over the last 12 months, if nothing else, restoring confidence has been really, really important and we’ve still got a journey to go on.”
He said: “The key focus has been around the victims and survivors. We need to understand better what the issues are for them and we could have done better and what we need to do for the future.”
Mr Harwin said he understands that the public want to see arrests and perpetrators jailed.
He said South Yorkshire Police has arrested 460 people on suspicion of child abuse offences in the last 12 months with 76 of these suspected of involvement in “grooming and facilitation”.
And he said 54 people have been charged with child sexual exploitation (CSE) related offences across the force, 22 in Rotherham. There are currently 155 live CSE investigations in South Yorkshire, with 46 of these in Rotherham.
Mr Harwin said: “The public want to see some action. They ultimately want to see people who are responsible to be brought to justice.”
He said there are still many barriers to bringing suspects to justice but he said his officers now had other tools, short of prosecution, to control suspected offenders, including abduction notices and sexual harm prevention orders.
One such order, applied when there is concern about a person being involved in sexual offending but not enough evidence to convict them, has already been handed out to an individual in Rotherham, though the force would not reveal further details as it is linked to a criminal case.
Mr Harwin said South Yorkshire Police had a responsibility to do more than other forces around the country, adding: “This is our ambition and vision of where we need to be to get that public confidence back, we have got the responsibility to do everything we can with the money and the resource we have got, through the partnership capability we have got, to protect young people.
“There will be lots of other parts of the country that have got the same issues we are facing in South Yorkshire, but at the minute, because they don’t understand it as well as we understand it, they are not doing as much work.”
According to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, South Yorkshire Police has made progress in recent months but still needs to make “major improvements” to some of its child protection procedures.
The watchdog cited the example of a 15-year-old girl “demonstrating signs of vulnerability due to sexual exploitation and drug taking” who was characterised as a “naughty child” by officers and not believed when she made allegations of physical abuse.
Mr Harwin said: “That response is not good enough, we need to understand why that response was and the individual involved needs to be held to account. But the majority of staff are getting it right.
“We need to be very careful that we don’t label all staff against individuals that haven’t got it right, and they may not have got it right for a good reason, but ultimately we need to learn from that.”