AS one of the survivors of the Rotherham sexual exploitation scandal in which at least 1,400 children were abused between 1997 and 2013, I have, in the past few years, seen my home town and the country as a whole come a long way to tackle some of the factors that contributed to what happened.
But we are still not doing enough to prevent other young people becoming victims of grooming gangs who befriend their young targets before trapping them in a cycle of abuse and misery. I hope today’s centenary of the Representation of People Act can focus on this issue.
In 2013, the story of the abuse that happened to me when I was just 14 years old was told in The Times newspaper and contributed to Rotherham Council ordering the independent inquiry which finally revealed the shocking extent of exploitation offences in the town.
Now, almost five years later and after giving evidence in court with others that finally helped convict my abuser and his associates more than a decade after their offences, I have become a campaigner doing my best to make sure others don’t suffer in the same way.
The first thing we need to do as a country is to admit this type of child abuse is a problem. We are still not doing so. I still often hear “It doesn’t happen in our town or city”, but I’m afraid that is nonsense. It happens everywhere and it is everyone’s responsibility to make this stop.
There are two different areas to concentrate on; firstly, bringing in policies that reduce the risk of abuse happening in the first place and secondly, putting support in place which means those who have already been victims have a genuine chance to rebuild their lives.
I believe that mandatory age-appropriate education in schools about child sexual exploitation is a must. In the modern world, knowing more about being safe on the internet is also essential. Social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter need to play a bigger role in making the online world safer for our children in a way that is not happening at the moment.
There should also be training for school staff, as this could go a long way in helping spot the warning signs that a child is being abused.
One of the key elements of what happened in Rotherham related to the involvement of some taxi drivers in the exploitation process, with a blind eye turned too often to what was going on. In Rotherham, it has been ordered that CCTV must now be installed in all taxis to better protect passengers and law-abiding drivers. This is something I believe could make a major difference if it becomes national policy.
Meanwhile, for those who have already gone through the process of trying to recover from the devastating impact of being abused as a child, I know first-hand how much more help is needed, particuarly in terms of funding to support mental health services for survivors.
It is difficult for people to come forward and admit they need help in the first place, but too often when they do, they are turned away or have to wait for months for assistance because counselling services are bursting at the seams.
People should have the right to receive help and support – the same support that I eventually received helped me to change my life around.
I am also campaigning for what is being called Sammy’s Law, which would introduce new legislation stating children can not be charged for committing crimes while being groomed, excluding rape and murder.
As part of the grooming process, criminals all too often get their child victims to commit crimes. This prevents children and adult survivors coming forward to authorities to report sexual abuse and exploitation, as they fear they could go to prison for the crimes they committed while being groomed.
For survivors who have already received convictions in court as a child, their criminal records should be cleared on a case-by-case basis. This would not be a blanket decision, but in instances where there is evidence of youth offending being a direct result of being groomed and exploited, such a move would have the power to allow victims the chance to truly move on with their lives.
This idea has so far been supported by a number of chief constables, police and crime commissioners, MPs and charities, and we are now awaiting a decision from the Government as to whether the proposal can be referred to the Law Commission. I believe it could make a priceless difference to those this situation affects.
People ask me why I campaign so tirelessly on issues like this. For me, it is simple; I want what all mothers should, which is to leave behind a safer, better world than the one I came into. We can make that happen together.
Sammy Woodhouse is an award-winning campaigner and public speaker.