Today’s report by Ann Coffey MP into the prevalence of child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester makes for horrendous reading. The fact that grooming and the sexualisation of children in the area has become a ‘social norm’ should cause the Government, police forces and the public to stop in its tracks. Over the past six years in this one area alone, there have been 13,000 reported cases of major sexual offences against under-16 year olds. And with the appalling truth still emerging of the 1,400 cases of sexual exploitation in Rotherham between 1997 and 2013, serious and urgent action must be taken.
In our report into modern slavery and human trafficking – It Happens Here – the CSJ also uncovered a prevalent culture of disbelief surrounding the sexual exploitation of children in the UK. In several cases we were told that children subject to this kind of abuse often appear to the authorities – police, social workers, the courts – as ‘badly behaved’ or ‘asking for it’. The CSJ was told that in many cases, those grooming children for sexual exploitation will force them to shoplift, so that they are immediately on the ‘wrong side’ of the law. This then discredits any future interactions that these children might have when and if they report their abuse to the police.
With each report into child sexual exploitation the same poor responses are exposed and the culture of disbelief continues. Repeatedly, this exploitation is termed ‘child prostitution’ in certain areas of law and academia. Repeatedly, children are being brutally cross examined in court – ‘one of the barristers was not even asking me questions, he was just shouting at me’, today’s report heard. Repeatedly, a child’s choice of clothing has a bearing on their victimhood – ‘the victim is known…to wear sexualised clothes when she is out of school’, adds the shocking report.
The response to this appalling crime needs to improve from top to bottom. Social workers need training to recognise the signs of grooming – many victims are in the care system. Local police forces need effective compulsory guidance, so that we no longer hear that forces ‘suspect [children] are being exploited, and they are struggling to act because of a lack of knowledge, understanding and expertise, and budgetary, resource and priority constraints’. The Government needs to resource police training as well as a national awareness campaign to challenge public attitudes towards this crime. It’s happened before. 20 years ago domestic violence was seen as a ‘private matter’ – now there are new ways of taking evidence that don’t rely on the vulnerable victim and prosecutions are improving. Lessons can be learnt, and there is no time to lose.