Councillors and senior officers were told of the nightmarish extent of Rotherham’s child sexual exploitation problems a decade ago - but took no action, partly due to fears of being accused of racism, a damning report has revealed.
More than 1,400 children - in a town of roughly only 46,000 under-15s - were victims of sexual abuse between 1997 and 2013.
The majority of perpetrators were of Pakistani origin, with most of the child victims white. But there were concerns about identifying the ethnic origins of abusers because of fears staff could be perceived as ‘racist’.
So warnings from frontline workers about the extent of the problem went repeatedly unheeded by council bosses and South Yorkshire Police.
Meanwhile girls as young as 11 were gang-raped by large numbers of men, children were doused in petrol and told they were going to be set alight, and youngsters were threatened with guns in a litany of horrendous abuse being inflicted in the town over a period of years.
In more than a third of cases, the children affected by sexual exploitation had been previously known to the authorities in relation to child protection and neglect.
Professor Alexis Jay’s report also revealed that a 2002 council dossier which did expose the scale of the problem in the town was ‘suppressed’ by leaders at the local authority and the police.
Its author was effectively hounded out of her job.
And some council workers told Prof Jay they were even given ‘clear direction’ from managers not to mention the ethnic origins of the suspected abusers.
The inquiry also revealed councillors and senior officers were given seminars about the town’s child sex exploitation problem in 2004/05.
The report said: “Seminars presented the abuse in the most explicit terms. After these events, nobody could say, ‘We didn’t know’.
“In 2005, the council leader chaired a group to take forward the issues - but there is no record of its meetings or conclusions, apart from one minute.”
Council leader Roger Stone, who has led the authority since 2003, resigned yesterday in the wake of the report.
He said: “It is a matter of great regret for me, as it is for many others, that so many people have been traumatised by child sex exploitation here in Rotherham.
“However, having considered the report, I believe it is only right that I, as leader, take responsibility on behalf of the council for the historic failings described so clearly in the report.”
Interviews with some senior councillors revealed ‘none could recall the issue ever being discussed in the Labour group until 2012’. Prof Jay said: “Given the seriousness of the subject, the evidence available, and the reputational damage to the council, it is extraordinary that the Labour group, which dominated the council, failed to discuss child sex exploitation until then.
“The terms used by many people we spoke to about how those in authority - members and some officers - dealt with child sexual exploitation were ‘sweeping it under the carpet’, ‘turning a blind eye’ and ‘keeping a lid on it’.”
Prof Jay said the people of Rotherham would be shocked by her findings.
“I cannot think they are anything other than decent, good people who will be utterly appalled by the content of the report,” she said.
The report, made public at a press conference at Rotherham United’s New York Stadium yesterday afternoon, said there had been ‘blatant’ failings from Rotherham Council managers and South Yorkshire Police.
The inquiry, which was commissioned by Rotherham Council in response to criticism of how child sexual exploitation was being dealt with in the town, said the figure of 1,400 child sex abuse victims between 1997 and 2013 was a ‘conservative estimate’.
Prof Jay’s report said frontline staff had tried to raise concerns about grooming problems, with senior managers knowing about the issue for years.
Her report said: “Over the first 12 years covered by this inquiry, the collective failures of political and officer leadership were blatant.
“From the beginning, there was growing evidence that child sexual exploitation was a serious problem in Rotherham. This came from those working in residential care and from youth workers who knew the young people well.
“But within social care, the scale and seriousness of the problem was underplayed by senior managers.
“At an operational level, the police gave no priority to child sexual exploitation, regarding many child victims with contempt and failing to act on their abuse as a crime.
“Further stark evidence came in 2002, 2003 and 2006, with three reports known to the police and council, which could not have been clearer in their description of the situation in Rotherham.
“The first of these reports was effectively suppressed because some senior officers disbelieved the data it contained.”
The report said there were problems in facing up to the ethnic background of the abusers.
It said: “By far the majority of perpetrators were described as ‘Asian’ by victims yet, throughout the entire period, councillors did not engage directly with the Pakistani-heritage community to discuss how best they could jointly address the issue.
“Some councillors seemed to think it was a one-off problem which they hoped would go away. Several staff described nervousness about identifying the ethnic origins of perpetrators for fear of being thought racist, while others remembered clear direction from their managers not to do so.”
The report said that, between January 2012 and April 2014, there had been 14 prosecutions for child sex exploitation in Rotherham, with two cautions.
In 2013, South Yorkshire Police received 157 reports in relation to the issue in the town.
And the inquiry said abuse ‘continues to this day’.
More than 50 cases were still being dealt with by the specialist child sexual exploitation team in May this year.