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Thousands of children are raped and abused each year, with many more cases going unreported by victims and unrecorded by the authorities, according to an official study presented as the most comprehensive inquiry to date of the scale and prevalence of child sexual exploitation in England.
The disturbing and at times horrific study, which describes a range of traumatic and violent sexual crimes perpetrated mainly against girls, by male teenage gang members and groups of older men, was described as a “wake-up call” for safeguarding professionals by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England (OCCE).
It draws an alarming picture of serious sexual crimes against children: girls groomed, then drugged and raped at seedy “parties” in private homes and warehouses organised by groups of men, for profit or pleasure; assaults in public parks, schools and alleyways by gang members influenced by violent pornography, and intent on threatening, punishing or controlling young women by means of forced oral sex, and anal and vaginal rape.
The report says that victims commonly suffer serious physical and emotional harm as a result of their experiences, including severe mental illness, and drug and alcohol problems. Some victims contract sexually transmitted diseases, become pregnant, have terminations or suffer miscarriages.
“The reality is that each year thousands of children in England are raped and abused by people seeking to humiliate, violate and control them. The impact on their lives is devastating,” said the inquiry chair, deputy children’s commissioner Sue Berelowitz.
The inquiry was established in 2011 to investigate what it saw as mounting concern about child sexual exploitation. The inquiry team, comprising academics and senior safeguarding professionals from the police, NHS and charities, collected data and evidence from local authorities, police forces and primary care trusts. It took oral evidence from 68 professionals and 20 sexually exploited children across the country.
It concluded that too often police, local authorities and other safeguarding agencies have failed to spot or act on the warning signs of sexual exploitation, despite what it says is 20 years of evidence that large numbers of children are being sexually exploited in the UK. “Too many child victims are not getting the protection and support they need,” writes Berelowitz in the foreword to the report.
It criticises safeguarding professionals who labelled victims as “promiscuous” or “asking for it”. This “worrying perspective” suggested officials too often assumed that sexually exploited children, many of whom exhibited disruptive or aggressive behaviour, were “complicit in, and responsible for, their own abuse”.
Debbie Jones, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said: “It is clear that we cannot make assumptions about victims or perpetrators based on their age, ethnicity or whether they are in care. Making such assumptions will risk some children not being identified as being sexually exploited and not receiving the protection that they so desperately need.”
The inquiry’s interim report published by the OCCE says that despite media attention surrounding a number of high-profile court cases involving groups of Pakistani men and white British female victims, sexual exploitation was widespread. There was no evidence that perpetrators belonged disproportionately to a particular ethnic group.
“The vast majority of the perpetrators of this terrible crime are male. They range in age from as young as 14 to old men. They come from all ethnic groups and so do their victims – contrary to what some may wish to believe,” writes Berelowitz.
The study found the largest group of perpetrators were classed as “white” males, but because there were gaps in official data recording, and because many victims found it hard to identify their attackers, it was impossible to estimate accurately who and how many people were sexually exploiting children.
“What all perpetrators have in common – regardless of the differences in age, ethnicity, or social background (information on disability or sexual orientation was rarely available) – was their abuse of power in relation to their victims, and that the vast majority were male,” the report said.
Although it identified 2,409 children and young people as “confirmed victims” of sexual exploitation in gangs or groups over a 14-month period, and estimated that 16,500 children were at “high risk” of sexual exploitation during a 12-month period, the report said this was an undercounting of the true scale of the problem. The report did not consider cases of sexual exploitation by “lone perpetrators”.
Anne Marie Carrie, chief executive of Barnardo’s, which works with 1,000 victims of child sexual exploitation each year, agreed that the figures were undercounted: “We agree with the OCCE that it is likely that the figures of both confirmed victims and those at high risk only show us the tip of the iceberg.
All kinds of children and young people, both male and female and across a range of ethnic backgrounds, were sexually exploited, the report found. Although vulnerable youngsters in care or from dysfunctional families were most at risk, children “from loving and secure homes” were also abused by gangs and groups.
“The characteristics common to all victims are not their age, ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation, rather their powerlessness and vulnerability,” the report states.
The study found that 28% of the victims reported to the inquiry were from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. The report says: “This information is significant, given that the general perception appears to be that sexual exploitation by groups, in particular, is primarily a crime against white children.”
Technology was used widely to initiate, organise and maintain child sexual exploitation. Victims reported being harassed through text messages, and perpetrators would often film and distribute incidents of rape via smartphones and social networking. Younger perpetrators had in many cases been exposed to violent pornography, the inquiry found, and it speculated that this informed abusers’ understanding of sexual relationships.
Berelowitz writes: “We need to ask why so many males, both young and old, think it is acceptable to treat both girls and boys as objects to be used and abused. We need to know why so many adults in positions of responsibility persist in not believing these children when they try to tell someone what they have endured.”