A sex abuse investigation in Britain raises difficult questions of race and child protection.
LONDON, UK — There was the 12-year-old beaten and burned before her illegal abortion. The intoxicated 13-year-old girl arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, while the men with her were released. Two different fathers who stormed houses in search of their teenage daughters, only to be arrested and the girls left with their rapists.
A major UK newspaper investigation and subsequent inquiries have uncovered sexual exploitation crimes of historic scope in Britain, and repeated refusals of police and child protection agencies to act on reports that something was wrong.
For the last 15 years, organized groups of men have been grooming and sexually abusing girls in northern and central England cities.
Girls as young as 11 were targeted in shopping malls, town plazas and other public places by older teenagers or adult men, who purchased their trust and affection with attention, car rides, gifts and alcohol.
“Some say focusing on the men’s race obscured that they were just as much a product of Britain as the girls they raped.”
Once they had established what the girl believed was a relationship, the requests began: If you loved me, you’d sleep with my best friend. Or my uncle. Or this stranger. Sometimes men received payment for use of the girls’ bodies. This led to girls eventually being raped by groups of men at a time, trafficked between cities for sex and beaten or threatened if they resisted. Small groups of men operated together, though it does not appear that the groups were part of a larger coordinated network.
More than 1,400 girls were attacked in this way in Rotherham alone, a south Yorkshire borough of 258,000 people that released a report Tuesday detailing the “blatant” failure of police and local authorities to stop the crimes.
The Rotherham report and an ongoing investigation by Times reporter Andrew Norfolk have prompted serious reflection in Britain about the way sexual exploitation cases are handled.
They have also raised uncomfortable questions of race.
While most of the men jailed for sex crimes in Britain are white, the vast majority of perpetrators in these cases were Muslim men primarily of Pakistani descent. Most of the victims were white.
When pressed on why they failed to adequately investigate or publicize early reports of the crimes, many public officials told Norfolk and investigators that they were fearful of inflaming racial divides or of appearing racist.
The discussion around race and whether it’s relevant to reports of these crimes has divided people within and outside of Britain’s South Asian communities.
Early reports of the crimes were seized upon by far-right groups like the British National Party and their sympathizers, who saw the crimes as fallout of Britain’s immigration policy.
That made people even more reluctant to probe a cause associated with unsavory figures like BNP head Nick Griffin, who once claimed that Muslims were spreading Islam in Europe by impregnating white girls.
The focus on race has been a distraction from deeper issues, some campaign groups said.
“It’s a let-off. You’re still [ignoring] the fundamental things that need examining, which are around age and gender,” said Sarah Green, spokeswoman for the London-based End Violence Against Women Coalition.
“The question needs to be, why are groups of men behaving this way? Why are they so confident they’ll get away with it?”
By January 2011, when the Times first broke the story, there had been 17 court cases nationwide of men abusing girls aged 11 to 16, with 56 men convicted.
Since then there have been multiple inquiries into these “street grooming” crimes and the policies that allowed them to continue unchecked.
The Rotherham report laid out in detail how the system failed girls.
In that city, overstretched child protection officers tended to push aside reports of abuse of girls 11 and older, as part of a national trend to focus increasingly scarce resources on the youngest children.
When confronted with reports, South Yorkshire Police “widely disregarded” their own policies on child exploitation cases, the report said, dismissing reports as exaggerations or as consensual relationships.
One-third of victims were girls already on the radar of child protective services, some of whom police viewed as “out of control” cases less worthy of police time.
The focus on white victims also overlooked victims of South Asian descent, many of whom felt pressure not to come forward, according to a report last year from the Muslim Women’s Network.
Others said focusing on the men’s race obscured the fact that they were just as much a product of Britain as the girls they raped.
“Excuse me, they are British men. They are boys who have been born and brought up here, by this country, by this society,” said Bashan Rafique, chair of the UK All Pakistan Women’s Association.
The Times stories prompted a Parliamentary investigation last year that prompted ongoing changes to the social work and criminal justice systems, including new police guidelines on handling these cases.
The publication of the Rotherham report this week and the gut-churning scope of the abuse detailed within brought widespread public attention to the issue. The leader of Rotherham Council stepped down, and there is widespread call for the police chief to do so as well.
Several British-Pakistani and Muslim leaders spoke publicly of the need to work within communities to prevent attitudes sanctioning these crimes.
In an interview with the Times, a former victim identified by the pseudonym Amy praised the report as “brilliant.” She reported her abuse to police twice, at the ages of 13 and 14, but said she was treated like a “a stupid, naughty girl.” No one was ever prosecuted for her rape.
“Those professionals have sat behind their desks, taken their wages, known this was happening, and done nothing about it,” she said. “To me that makes them as bad as the perpetrators.”