In recent news, extensive reports have been made on the conviction of a group of 18 people in Newcastle upon Tyne that were part of a sex grooming network that exploited vulnerable teenage girls as young as 14.
A shocking 278 victims were identified, 20 of whom came forward to give evidence in the trial. The perpetrators, both men and one woman, were convicted of almost 100 offences which included rape, conspiracy to incite prostitution and trafficking amongst others.
Accounts of the victims’ experiences resemble that of a horror story. They were befriended and regularly lured to parties where alcohol and drugs were readily available. This placed them in dangerous situations, where they were made to be so intoxicated that they were unable to defend themselves from rape by multiple men.
This story may sound all too familiar as many readers will note that this is not the first major case of child grooming gangs that has come to the forefront of the media.
Prominent news coverage was also given to the Rotherham child abuse scandal in 2010 and the Rochdale child sex ring scandal In May 2012.
An independent inquiry commissioned by Rotherham Council concluded that at least 1,400 children, most of them white girls aged 11–15, had been sexually abused in Rotherham between 1997 and 2013 by predominantly British-Pakistani men.
In Rochdale, 12 men were convicted of sex trafficking and other offences after 47 girls were identified as victims of child sexual exploitation during the police investigation.
This has recently been depicted by the BBC in a harrowing three-part drama, Three Girls.
Similarly, in May 2013, seven men were convicted in Oxford for their part in a grooming gang, with three of them being convicted in July 2016 of further offences against a client of this firm.
Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE)
Grooming gangs are a form of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE).
The government has defined that CSE occurs where ‘an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator. The victim may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears consensual.’
Child sexual exploitation is complex and victims often have ‘misplaced feelings of loyalty and shame’. Many believe they are in a relationship with their abuser and do not recognise that they are being abused and exploited.
How do grooming gangs work?
Vulnerable young girls who may either be in care or disruptive family homes are often seen as ‘easy targets’ by such gangs because they are more welcoming of attention. When the girls are befriended an emotional connection is established that makes the girls feel comfortable around the gang. They are then introduced to a culture of drugs and alcohol which they become dependant on.
The gang members take advantage of this, coercing the victims into sexual activity in exchange for substances. Victims are often isolated from their family and friends, threatened, beaten and intimidated to create an environment of fear and dependency.
In many cases, the girls are then trafficked to other groups where they can be raped by any number of men in one night.
There has been much focus on the fact that the grooming gangs that have featured in the press are of a predominantly Muslim background. Police and local authorities have been criticised for their lack of action in response to disclosures and have been accused of being fearful of ‘Islamophobic’ labelling or a so-called ‘politically correct’ approach.
This has meant that the abuse and exploitation of some of these vulnerable girls continued for years without challenge, despite numerous reports and referrals being made to the authorities.
An attitude of ‘victim blaming’ was also prevalent with police and social services, stemming from a lack of understanding regarding the nature of grooming. Superficially, it may seem that the young person is engaging in entirely consensual behaviour. However, if a child feels they have no other meaningful choice but to submit to their perpetrators’ demands this cannot qualify as ‘consent’ - especially if they are under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
The authorities have historically overlooked the fact that the victims, no matter how ‘street wise’, were still legally children.
Signs and effects of grooming
Signs of child sexual exploitation can mistakenly be seen as ‘normal adolescent behaviours’.
It is essential that these preliminary signs are identified and addressed at an early stage, as prolonged exposure to exploitation can lead to progressed forms of abuse and lifelong psychological harm. These signs may include:
- Acquisition of money, clothes, mobile phones etc without plausible explanation
- Isolation from peers/social networks
- Exclusion or unexplained absences from school, college or work
- Often returning home late or staying out all night and being secretive about who they are talking to and where they are going
- Returning home under the influence of drugs/alcohol
- Using sexual language that you wouldn’t expect them to know
- Evidence of physical or sexual assault
- Relationships with controlling or significantly older individuals or groups
- Self-harm or becoming emotionally volatile
- Sudden changes in their appearance and wearing more revealing clothes
- Appearing controlled by their phone
- Switching to a new screen when you come near the computer.
This form of exploitation can have long lasting consequences like any other form of abuse. The effects include:
- Physical (including sexual) and mental health and well-being
- Education and training and therefore future employment prospects
- Family relationships
- Friends and social relationships, current and as adults
- Their relationship with their own children in the future
Preventing CSE in the future
Police forces have launched large-scale operations in the wake of the major convictions mentioned above and Serious Case Reviews have also been commissioned by relevant local authorities.
It is hoped that these will result in a wider understanding and more awareness of the nature of CSE and, in particular, grooming gangs that can go undetected for considerable amounts of time.
Redress for victims of CSE
Criminal RouteMany perpetrators have been convicted through the criminal courts and received unusually lengthy and very punitive prison sentences, some as long as 35 years.
Another route to justice is seeking compensation through the civil courts.
Claims can be made against the local authority charged with a victim’s care at the relevant time. Where Serious Case Reviews have reached damning findings against social services’ conduct, victims may be well-placed to bring civil proceedings against them.
Such claims would aim to compensate the victims for their pain, suffering and consequential financial losses, including the need for specialist therapy. Such civil actions are also targeted at improving social work practice.
It is hoped that the recent waves of publicity and convictions in these types of cases, together with compensation claims brought against the relevant local authorities, will serve to protect vulnerable young people in the future.