Telford child sexual exploitation report - local lessons must be applied nationally
Alison Millar, head of the abuse team, discusses the recent report of the independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in the Telford area spanning from 1989 to date. She argues that the issues raised in the report must be considered by every locality to ensure that child exploitation is recognised and survivors are listened to and supported.
Posted on 14 July 2022
This week has seen the publication of the report of the Independent Inquiry – Telford Child Sexual Exploitation (IITCSE) chaired by Tom Crowther QC.
This independent, non-statutory inquiry into child sexual exploitation (CSE) was commissioned by Telford & Wrekin Council after diligent investigation by Sunday Mirror journalists Geraldine McKelvie and Nick Sommerlad had uncovered CSE in Telford on a horrifying scale. Brave victims and survivors told them stories of being raped, beaten and sold for sex – manipulated by merciless predators who maintained their silence through threats of violence, which were not empty: some girls were even killed.
The survivors included Holly Archer, who has since published a book I Never Gave My Consent about her experience of exploitation and abuse and opened a project for survivors and their families in and around the Telford area, known as The Holly Project. She has campaigned tirelessly, alongside other survivors and with Telford MP Lucy Allan, for a statutory inquiry into the failings by the authorities in Telford.
The IITCSE report makes reference to Home Office statistics that showed Telford had the “highest rate of recorded child sex crimes” with 15.1 crimes reported per 10,000 residents between September 2014 and September 2015. In March 2018, the Sunday Mirror published a series of articles reporting that “up to 1,000 girls” may have been subjected to sexual exploitation in Telford over a 40 year period. Although the initial response by the authorities was to rubbish this, the pressure for an inquiry had become overwhelming and it was announced, with the Terms of Reference being finalised in July 2019.
The Telford report vindicates the 2018 estimates of the prevalence of CSE in the area – the Chair concludes that, taking the witness evidence and all the available data into account, the extent of CSE in Telford has plainly been very significant: “I certainly cannot say that the Sunday Mirror’s figure is “patently untrue” … sadly, I regard it as a measured, reasonable and non-sensational assessment.”
The report also refers to evidence that the CSE in Telford had “had become a behaviour passed down through generations” – not only from the point of view of perpetrators but also from the viewpoint of victims and survivors, some of whom may have grown up around such abuse and whose parents may also have been exploited previously.
The report discusses attitudes to victims and survivors once they have reached adulthood and have become parents – and that negative assumptions have been made by professionals relating to their parenting ability because they have been subjected to sexual exploitation in the past, sometimes with very negative consequences for them such as having their own children removed from their care.
This is victim-blaming down the generations based on the wholly incorrect narrative that pervaded that the survivors / victims were naughty girls making bad ‘lifestyle choices’ and ‘putting themselves at risk’. In my view, this clearly gives rise to real human rights issues.
The report rightly recommends that Telford & Wrekin Council should undertake a review of social care cases to establish whether there is any identifiable bias in respect of parents who are victims / survivors of CSE and actions that have been taken in respect of safeguarding their children. If CSE victims / survivors are struggling as a result of their past trauma then therapeutic support should be made available to them including elements designed to address relationships and parenting in a way that makes clear that victims/survivors of CSE are not being blamed for their experiences.
This report yet again finds that the authorities who should have been responsible for protecting children viewed children as responsible for their own exploitation and let them down badly; whilst Relationships and Sex Education, including CSE awareness training, should be on the curriculum in all schools nationwide, children cannot be expected to protect themselves from coercion, manipulation and deception by adult perpetrators and it is the adults around the child who must be responsible for keeping them safe.
Tom Crowther QC notes in the report that there is a lack of reliable data on the prevalence of CSE across the UK, and as a result it is not possible to determine the number of children abused by sexual exploitation within Telford during the time covered by the inquiry’s Terms of Reference. This was an issue picked up by IICSA, which found that an accurate picture of prevalence could not be gleaned from either criminal justice or children’s social care data. The barriers to disclosing CSE, including poor organisational responses, also mean that any statistics are certainly an under-report of the issue.
The deficiencies in data collection and analysis are a real problem as it can give the authorities false comfort that the problem has been effectively tackled and is on the wane – and this seems to have been the dangerous assumption made in Telford where West Mercia Police stood down their specially trained officers and dedicated CSE team after the successful prosecution of perpetrators in 2011 and 2012 in Operation Chalice.
I am glad that the Telford report makes clear that accurate data collection and mapping of CSE is vital: as the report says, prevention and disruption can only be engaged in effectively if the trends around CSE are understood, and the public deserves to know what is happening in their community.
One of the perhaps most difficult conclusions from the Telford inquiry is that the response to the exploitation was significantly hindered by issues of race; there was a nervousness about race that led to a reluctance to investigate crimes committed by men of southern Asian heritage. This was very wrong: concerns about racism, and being seen to be racist, were allowed to take precedence over the protection of vulnerable children, whose wellbeing should have been paramount.
It is important to put this in perspective. It is clearly the case that Asian males were involved in CSE in Telford and all the men convicted in Operation Chalice were of this heritage. However, we do not know the accurate prevalence of CSE – and it is very likely that this is an evolving problem in Telford, and elsewhere. As the report says, it would be wholly wrong, and undoubtedly racist, to equate membership of a particular racial group with propensity to commit CSE. If we stereotype the perpetrator of CSE as an ‘Asian taxi driver’ it is likely that we will miss other cases, just as the idea that a paedophile is a greasy man wearing a mac hanging round schools has enabled child sex offenders, who come from every section of society, to hide in plain sight.
We must keep up our vigilance to this devastating form of abuse: CSE is a crime which involves the sexual abuse of children in the most degrading and destructive ways. The explosion of child sexual abuse on the internet – the Internet Watch Foundation’s 2021 Annual Report found that there had been a 374% increase on pre-pandemic levels, the worst year on record for child sexual abuse online – means that it is very unlikely there has been a decrease in the numbers of cases.
It is really important that the learning from the Telford report, like other recent reports, goes wider and deeper than the identified failures of Telford & Wrekin Council, the Local Safeguarding Children Board, and West Mercia Police. Child sexual exploitation, with its distinct features from other forms of child exploitation, needs to remain a priority for action in all localities.
Alison Millar works in the human rights department at Leigh Day, where she is the Head of Abuse claims
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