A series of leaked documents relating to cases of sexual exploitation in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, were published by The Times newspaper last week.
The documents—some going back over a decade—lay out how the authorities systematically failed to prevent the abuse of dozens of teenage girls.
Five men were jailed in 2010 for a total of 32 and half years in one case of sexual abuse and grooming in the town.
The revelations have sparked renewed claims from commentators and politicians that the crimes were a “cultural” problem caused by the Asian community—and that they were ignored because of “politically correct” concerns over racism.
But social workers in Rotherham give a very different account of why the authorities failed to stop the abuse. “I’m not surprised young women fell through the safety net,” one social worker based in the town told Socialist Worker.
“There’s a huge shortage of staff—and particularly of qualified staff. The way the service is run is all about ‘cost management’ rather than getting out there and helping people.”
And it is sexist attitudes towards the victims, rather than imagined “sensitivities” about race, that hold back investigations.
Bea Kay is a GMB union steward and a member of the Social Work Action Network in South Yorkshire. “The response of some agencies is that these girls are ‘promiscuous’—that working class girls ask for it,” she explained.
In a recent case in Derby eight men, seven of whom were white, were convicted of “paying for the sexual services of a child”.
Both the reporting of the case and the offence itself present the young women as complicit in their own abuse—“selling” sex for drugs, alcohol and other “gifts”.
The Derby case also shows the media’s racial double standards. It received a fraction of the coverage of the Rochdale and Rotherham scandals that primarily involved Asian men.
Grooming can be a complex experience for its victims. Many live in poverty and have been in care with few opportunities and low expectations. They are encouraged to feel so worthless that when someone offers drugs, drink and attention it can be perceived as love.
Investigating and helping victims of grooming can take years. This needs resources. Yet the government and councils are making drastic cuts.
“In Sheffield, one of the few authorities with specialist services to support victims of this abuse, it has been moved and staffing axed.” said Bea.
In the wake of the “Baby P” case, management set the priority on babies and very young children. Services for teenagers were neglected. Now resources will be focused on uncovering “Asian gangs”—and move away from the vast majority of abusers who don’t fit this model.
Meanwhile the moral panic about “Asian grooming” is whipping up racism. The racist English Defence League has certainly been taking note—it has threatened to hold its first march in Rotherham next week.
A new report into the sexual exploitation of young women in Rochdale calls for more training of social workers and clearer procedures. But in the absence of additional resources, this can become a way of shifting the blame on to workers.
The report calls for closer links between professionals and those they are helping. Yet the introduction of the market has put social workers into huge call centres, far away from the people they are supposed to serve.
The report outlines the fear and isolation the young women felt. Astonishingly children in their early teens were seen not as victims of abuse—but as “perpetrators” making sexual choices. We need to listen to what young people in need are saying—and act on it.
Iain Ferguson teaches social work at the University of the West of Scotland and is a member of the Social Work Action Network. Go to socialworkfuture.org