Rotherham’s former director of children’s services has issued an apology to children abused in the town and said she wished staff ‘could have done more’ to help them.
Sonia Sharp, who worked for the council from 2005 to 2008, said staff ‘knew that there were many children in the community at risk and feared that this was the tip of an iceberg’.
In a statement, Dr Sharp, who now works for the Australian state of Victoria’s department of education and early childhood development, said: “You can’t be a director of children’s services and not take responsibility for what happens to children.
“I am sorry that these children and young people suffered terrible abuse and I wish we could have done more to prevent the abuse of children and young people in Rotherham.
“As soon as I commenced in April 2005 as Rotherham’s first director of children’s services, I was briefed by politicians, senior managers and frontline staff about the issue of sexual exploitation of young people.
“We knew that there were many children in the community at risk and feared that this was the tip of an iceberg.
“Nine years ago, our greatest challenge was to change the predominant view that these young people were ‘promiscuous teenagers in consensual relationships’, rather than victims of child abuse.
“Across our children’s services there were many people who dedicated themselves to stopping these awful crimes.
“There was a lot to do – shifting attitudes, raising the quality of services for these vulnerable children, improving early identification and strategies for prevention, and importantly, getting agencies to work together to achieve convictions.”
Dr Sharp was director of children’s services while under-pressure PCC Shaun Wright was cabinet member responsible for children’s services.
It was in the middle of a 16-year period when, according to the report, 1,400 youngsters suffered wide-scale sexual exploitation including gang rapes, grooming and trafficking.
Dr Sharp was among former Rotherham Council staff and police officers in the town who were interviewed by Professor Alexis Jay for the report.
Dr Sharp said the report highlighted some of the work her department did under her leadership, including abuse awareness programmes, improving links between police and social services, and creating a role to tackle child sexual exploitation.
She added: “By 2007 the impact of this work was beginning to show. Partnerships between police officers and social workers were strengthening, attitudes were beginning to change and practice was improving.
“Whilst painful reading, reports like this, and others like it across the world, are important in putting the spotlight on child sexual exploitation to ensure we get better at protecting children.
“I regret every case of exploitation of vulnerable girls that was not prevented, but feel strongly that our collective efforts led to gradual but essential improvements in the situation for many young people.”