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Racism and child abuse: the prejudice behind the pain

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A new report reveals how racism leads to Asian men being over-represented in child abuse figures, writes Sadie Robinson
Issue 2331
Some of the newspaper headlines blaming Asians for child abuse
Some of the newspaper headlines blaming Asians for child abuse

Much of the mainstream media has spent years whipping up scares about Asian paedophiles preying on white girls. Right wing commentators have claimed that “political correctness” has stopped these crimes being dealt with.

But now a new report has blown these claims apart. It shows that Asian men are likely to be over-represented in figures for abusers, not under-represented.

This is because the police and other organisations tasked with protecting children assume that abusers are Asian and victims are white.

This makes it easier for some abusers to continue unchecked—while children who don’t fit the victim stereotype are more likely to be ignored.

The revelations come from an interim report by the Children’s Commissioner for England. It is the most in-depth investigation to date of the sexual exploitation of children by gangs and groups in England.

The report defines child sexual exploitation as situations where people exert power over young people to push them into performing sexual activities.

The child may receive something in return, such as food, cigarettes, gifts or affection. Or they may be threatened with punishments if they refuse to comply.


It found that 2,409 children were confirmed victims of sexual exploitation in gangs and groups between August 2010 and October 2011. The victims suffered rapes, sexual and emotional abuse and physical assaults.

It estimates that at least 16,500 children showed signs that they were at risk of sexual exploitation during one year alone.

The report says that abusers “come from all ethnic groups and so do their victims—contrary to what some may wish to believe. “The failure of agencies to recognise this means that too many child victims are not getting the protection they so desperately need.”

White people “form the largest group of perpetrators in both gangs and groups”. Some 36 percent of abusers were white according to the information gathered by the panel. A further 27 percent were Asian.

Right wing commentators claimed this proved that Asian men were more likely to abuse children because only six percent of England’s population is Asian. But this ignores major problems with the figures.

The report said that “public and media attention” on high profile court cases has skewed how the police and other authorities view abuse. These cases tend to be of Asian men abusing white girls. This has now become the “specific pattern of abuse” that professionals look out for.

“It is clear that the police, children’s social care services and other agencies have been effective in readily identifying perpetrators and victims with similar individual characteristics,” said the report.


“There was no doubt that data is gathered more assiduously on perpetrators identified by professionals as ‘Asian’, ‘Pakistani’ or ‘Kurdish’.”

So an Asian abuser is more likely to get into the figures than a white one. Yet in the site visits the panel undertook, white British men were the only abusers identified in all of them. There was no ethnicity stated for 21 percent of abusers.

The inquiry received most of its data on abusers from the police. Therefore the data “may be biased in favour of groups or individuals who are the most visible to the police”. So the figures are likely to over-estimate, rather than under-estimate, the proportion of Asian abusers.

And many children and young people interviewed for the inquiry mentioned abusers who have not been charged or even arrested. These would not appear in any police data.

What’s more, some of those identified as ‘Asian’ may have been inaccurately classified. Data on abusers’ ethnicity is “considerably less reliable” that for characteristics such as age or gender.

“The inquiry was informed in several site visits of groups of perpetrators who were described generically as ‘Asian’ but who, upon further investigation, turned out to include Afghan, Kurdish and white British perpetrators.”

It added, “During site visits and in interviews with children and young people there were occasions when references to the ethnicity of perpetrators changed during the course of the discussion.”


On top of this, information on who abuses children is “inconsistent and insufficient”. Full information on perpetrators of child sexual exploitation was given in only 3 percent of the inquiry’s call for evidence. A further 23 percent included some information about abusers.

Sometimes victims are too scared to identify their abusers. Sometimes they are unable to because they were plied with drugs or alcohol at the time of the abuse.

Racism affects the treatment of victims as well as abusers. Black and Asian victims were “rarely identified by professionals from police forces or local authority children’s services”. These were more likely to identify white British children as victims.

Black and Asian victims were more likely to be identified by “BME, faith and statutory and voluntary sector youth justice agencies”.

The report found that 28 percent of victims were from “black minority ethnic” backgrounds—a higher figure than previously identified.

It said this is “significant, given that the general perception appears to be that sexual exploitation by groups, in particular, is primarily a crime against white children”.

The report stresses that its figures underestimate the scale of abuse. Yet each year “thousands of children in England are raped and abused”.

Child abuse starts at home

The inquiry focused on the sexual exploitation of children by gangs and groups. This means that evidence of other types of abuse isn’t included in its report. Nonetheless it found that many victims had also suffered abuse within their families.

“Many disclosed that in their early childhoods they were also sexually abused by family members and friends,” the report said. “Too often this was not identified and no action was taken to protect them.” This abuse was “directly linked” to their later abuse and made them more vulnerable to it.

The inquiry interviewed some 23 young people. Over half said they had lived in homes where they had seen domestic violence. Four said they had experienced sexual abuse within their family.

The report found that, “The majority of sexually exploited children are living at home when their abuse begins”.

Black victims are ignored

The inquiry panel met one multi-agency team that identifies and supports victims of child sexual exploitation and police officers who identify victims and abusers. It met various agencies who gave evidence that all victims in the area were white British females.

Next the panel met workers from the youth offending service in the same city. Their evidence showed that all of the victims were “black and minority ethnic girls”.

The report refers to “cases where BME victims were identified but professionals mistakenly told the panel that known cases involved only white girls as victims”.

The parents of black and Asian children may be “less confident in either the police or children’s services”. This may deter them from reporting abuse.

Problems with the figures

Much abuse of children is never reported so there’s no way of knowing how widespread the problem is. This helps politicians and the press to swing between refusing to acknowledge the problem to whipping up scares about it.

The latest report acknowledges that there are many problems with its figures. It received information from all police constabularies, 88 percent of local authority children’s services and other services in 66 percent of primary care trusts.

Some agencies focus more on abuse than others. There are varying definitions of child sexual exploitation leading to different ways of recording it.

The data is biased by police and other authorities’ assumptions about who are abusers and who are victims. And the recording and collection of data by agencies is inconsistent.

Why does abuse happen?

Children who suffer abuse are most likely to be abused by people in their families than by anyone else. Earlier this year the ChildLine charity said that, based on calls received about sexual abuse, 59 percent of abusers were family members.

Peter Saunders of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood said that the charity had spoken to “thousands” of survivors of abuse.

“The overwhelming majority (close to 100 percent) suffered abuse at the hands of a family member or someone trusted and known by the victim,” he said.

He added that focusing on gangs and traffickers was “a very unhelpful distraction from the far greater problem of child abuse that occurs within families”.

Abuse has material roots in our society. It reflects children’s powerlessness. Capitalism is a system built on oppression, hierarchy and inequality—children are at the bottom of that system.

Under capitalism, the family plays a crucial role in supporting the current workforce and nurturing the future one.

That’s why our rulers make so much of supporting the family and marriage—and why they panic if the institution seems to be losing support. So they paint a picture of the family as a loving haven that everyone should benefit from being part of.

When the family doesn’t live up to this rosy image, it’s easy to lash out at those within it who have relatively less power. This is why most women who are murdered are killed by someone in their family.

It’s why most children who are abused are abused by a family member. And it’s why it is even harder for children to report abuse within the home.

Child abuse in gangs and other groups is a serious problem. But it benefits those at the top to focus on this and mask the bigger problem of abuse within families.

That’s why the dominant view of child abuse is still of abusers as lone predators or warped people working in gangs—despite all evidence to the contrary.


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