Brooke is the Executive Director of End Slavery Now, a project of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. Follow her on Twitter at @brooke_hath
On August 21st Alexis Jay released a report titled “Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham: 1997-2013.” Her findings have taken the human trafficking world by storm, as she claims more than 1,400 girls, mostly between the ages of 12 and 14, in Rotherham, a small town in England, were sexually exploited.
What’s even more sickening than the gross, widespread abuse is the apparent cover-up and dismissal of such abuse by law enforcement.
Jay’s report examined cases in Rotherham over a 16 year period, and conservatively estimated at least 1,400 cases of child sexual exploitation. Her report finds that most of this exploitation happened by men of Pakistani heritage and that victims were largely from the working class of this northern English town.
South Yorkshire Police and the Rotherham Council allegedly covered up the abuse, and the chief executive of Rotherham Council is stepping down following the scandal. South Yorkshire's Police and Crime Commissioner, Shaun Wright, who was in charge of children's services in Rotherham from 2005 to 2010, has so far resisted calls to step down.
According to the report, South Yorkshire Police and law enforcement had a series of inappropriate workplace attitudes and practices to handle child sexual exploitation. The report names several key findings:
The report also states,
“We were contacted by someone who worked at the Rotherham interchange in the early 2000s. He described how the Police refused to intervene when young girls who were thought to be victims of CSE were being beaten up and abused by perpetrators. According to him, the attitude of the Police at that time seemed to be that they were all ‘undesirables’ and the young women were not worthy of police protection.”
One researcher who investigated abuse in the early 2000s told the Guardian that following her investigation in 2002, which identified 270 victims, the Rotherham Council raided her office and took her data.
That same researcher said when she shared her findings with co-workers, reporting that most of the perpetrators were from the Pakistani community, her colleague said, “You must never refer to that again – you must never refer to Asian men.” The researcher continued, "And her other response was to book me on a two-day ethnicity and diversity course to raise my awareness of ethnic issues."
Theresa May, Home Secretary for the UK, condemned “institutionalized political correctness” as a major reason for the blind eye of authorities. May believes that fear of being seen as racist coupled with a disdainful attitude toward vulnerable children may have lead to the police failures.
"I am clear that cultural concerns – both the fear of being seen as racist, and the frankly disdainful attitude to some of our most vulnerable children – must never stand in the way of child protection. We know that child sexual exploitation happens in all communities. There is no excuse for it in any of them. And there is never any excuse for failing to bring its perpetrators to justice."
Beyond general misconduct, many victims are claiming police intentionally ignored evidence – in some cases even misplacing it.
A video obtained by the BBC (seen halfway down the page here) shows an interview from August 4, 2003 where a victim named “Emma” describes her harrowing story with the police:
“They would use this sort of tactic to draw me in, and they then said I owe them money for the alcohol and drugs I received from them.” An interviewer asks what Emma had to do to repay that debt, and she answers, “I’d have to have sex or sell somebody or give somebody oral sex.”
“I did a formal video interview. They took away my evidence, which they were quite surprised I got evidence but I had, I had got clothing that I had been abused in. They then found me a couple days after that to tell me that they had actually lost my evidence. The attitude the all away along was that I was actually complaining about nothing and maybe I should just get over it.”
Emma found that she wasn’t the only victim from counselors, and when she finally returned to the country at age 17 – her parents had removed her from the country following the police formal interview – she saw the very men that terrorized her walking the streets.
An anonymous writer for the Guardian released an article last week describing her experience in an interview with police following one incident of sexual exploitation. Her story provides a chilling account of what it’s like for young kids to face adult, often male authority figures following sexual exploitation.
“It was an overcast October day during the half-term school holiday and I was 11 years old. I found myself sitting alone, on a plastic chair, in the empty bedroom of a terraced house. Behind me was a large, one-way mirror, in front of me a video camera on a stand. There was a small box of broken toys in the corner.
I'd been taken there in the back of a police car and told to wait until the officers were "ready for me"…
I’m not sure how long I was questioned. An hour perhaps, maybe two. We sat at a dining table, while questions were asked and I gave quiet, monosyllabic replies – when I could. But some of the questions I found especially difficult to answer.
"What were you wearing that night?" asked one of the officers. "Um, a nightie?" I mumbled, confused by the question. "Yes, but what sort of nightie?" she continued. "Er, I don't know, just an ordinary nightie," I offered apologetically, still not understanding. The officer pressed me harder: "How short was it, though?" –
And then the penny dropped. As I indicated a point halfway up my thigh and swallowed back tears, I realised that I must have done something wrong when I – 11 years old, let's not forget – was sexually assaulted by this 32-year-old man. Done something wrong by wearing a short night-dress.That's what the psychological grooming process does to you. It's part of the damage abuse does and I've no doubt it does make it harder to elicit "reliable evidence" from a "reliable witness" in the usual way, whether they're pre-pubescents, as I was, or older teens.”
In just over a third of cases, children affected by sexual exploitation were previously known to services because of child protection and neglect. By 2009, according to the report, the children's social care service was acutely understaffed and over stretched, struggling to cope with demand.
Rotherham social service providers are not unlike many service providers worldwide: underfunded and under-resourced. In May 2014, the caseload of the specialist child sexual exploitation team in South Yorkshire was 51, and other departments’ teams held even more child sexual exploitation cases. There were 16 looked after children who were identified by children’s social care as being at serious risk of sexual exploitation or having been sexually exploited.
If we’re to improve policies to remove or rescue children from sexual exploitation, we must pressure local, state and federal governments for increased appropriations.
And of course funding for staff and resources isn’t just for emergency rescues; it’s also necessary for prosecutions, transitional care and empowerment. In the Rotherham report, authors found that with a very small number of exceptions, there was little or no specialist counseling or appropriate mental health intervention offered to child victims, despite their acute distress. Emancipation isn’t a fleeting moment of rescue. Transitional care with aftercare services including physical and mental healthcare are necessary to healing.
I encourage you to read more about this scandal. As Ross Douthat recently wrote in the New York Times, though this headline is fading we should remain with the Rotherham girls.
We should do so not just for the sake of the victims, though for their sake attention should be paid: to the girls gang-raped or doused with gasoline; to the girls assaulted in bus stations and alleyways; to the girl, not yet 14,who brought bags of soiled clothes as evidence to the police and earned nothing for her trouble save for a check for 140 pounds — recompense for the garments, which the cops somehow managed to misplace.
But Douthat also wrote,
But bearing witness is insufficient; lessons must be learned as well. This is more than just a horror story. It’s a case study in how exploitation can flourish in different cultural contexts, and how insufficient any set of pieties can be to its restraint.
Rotherham reminds us all that human trafficking penetrates all borders and plagues all communities. The Global Slavery Index shows us that human trafficking happens in the United States and in the United Kingdom in large numbers. This story highlights its prevalence in small towns just as it happens in urban centers. It’s largely invisible, which makes it all the more difficult to identify, report and reduce.
The report noted that there were a number of recent and on-going police operations to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of commercial sexual exploitation. This included investigations into historic abuse cases, one a Rotherham investigation and a second a Yorkshire-wide operation. A police analyst is now based in Rotherham and produces a monthly report for a working sub-group to use for monitoring purposes.
Jay also noted that there have been recent operations to target suspect hotels and limousine companies and an operation was underway looking at high-risk missing children. Joint training of hotel managers had resulted in one perpetrator being caught with two under-age girls.
Jay now considers the Police to be appropriately resourced to deal with child sexual exploitation and believes they have a clear focus on prevention, protection, investigating and prosecuting the perpetrators.
Across the United States, prison inmates have planned strikes against state-imposed forced labor.
The Violence Against Women Act expires at the end of September. Demand its reauthorization.