Protecting vulnerable children is of the upmost importance in society, with many safeguarding measures being promoted by national and local government agencies to prevent people taking advantage of children. Sadly, there are times when the system has failed, primarily due to safeguarding measures not being properly in place when they were needed most and staff from agencies responsible for the safety of children missing vital training. We’ve detailed three of the higher profile cases from recent years to highlight where issues have arisen.
A group of twenty men were found guilty in October 2018 of running a child grooming gang in Huddersfield, with the men being convicted of 120 offences against 15 different girls.
Three trials were conducted where jurors were told of how these men preyed specifically on young girls under the age of 16 from vulnerable backgrounds. One of the girls was described as having an impaired mental state that made her particularly susceptible to being taken advantage of by these men. Many of these girls were described as “socially isolated” with some also being bullied at school, and as such became "easy targets for abuse", the court heard. These are typical traits which can put children at risk, and are highlighted within safeguarding training in order to provide proper protection for them. However, without training it can be easy to overlook these children in a school setting, and parents may not be aware of bullying if the child chooses to keep it secret.
Judge Geoffrey Marson QC said: "Children's lives have been ruined and families profoundly affected by seeing their children, over months and years, out of control, having been groomed by you and other members of your gang."
The victims were subjected to both drink and drugs in order to leverage these girls into being complicit and create an even more difficult situation for these girls to extract themselves from. During the trials, details of how some of the victims were driven up to remote areas of moorland late into the evening and left there if the demands of these men weren’t met, putting the girls in even more difficult situations. They also used threats of violence to control them, threatening to bomb the family home of one specific victim if they didn’t comply.
Barry Sheerman, Labour MP for Huddersfield, said: "Let's be honest: no-one, local authority leadership, police, many of the people that should have been taking this more seriously earlier did not.”
Victims and their families said that they repeatedly informed the police and relevant authorities at the time of the abuse that was happening, but that it hadn’t been taken seriously by anyone. One girl told the court that when she told two of the police officers who had taken her to hospital after she had been assaulted by one of the abusers, they had said that she “must have wanted it”. This particular incident highlights the lack of safeguarding training, or serious application of it, as the officers chose not to follow up on the statement despite the young age of the victim that would have made legal consent impossible.
It took until 2011 for the allegations to be taken seriously, when one of the victims wrote a letter to a judge which outlined the abuse she had suffered at the hands of the Huddersfield grooming gang. However, it wasn’t until 2013 when another victim came forward that formal allegations were made against specific members of the game which led to more of the girls to be interviewed over the course of three years, eventually leading to the creation of Operation Tendersea, which charged the gang in March 2017.
Nine men were jailed back in February 2019 after it was exposed that they had collectively been grooming two teenage girls living in a children’s home and were convicted of 22 individual offences.
The events began in 2008, when the two girls were 14, after one of the abusers met them, took them to a petrol station and got them a bottle of vodka. The abuse started shortly after the girls had moved into the children’s home, which prosecutor Karma Melly QC suggested played a key role in the ability for the men to take advantage of them along with their young age. Those working in children’s homes will likely have undergone safeguarding training to help spot signs of abuse, but a lack of resources can significantly hinder their ability to help those children who are most vulnerable.
She said: "Some of the defendants were actually forceful, threatening and violent, others used alcohol and drugs, others created a manipulated relationship in order to facilitate their sexual exploitation." By using substances, the men were able to keep the girls complicit over a long period of time during which the abuse could have been spotted, but sadly these two girls were failed by the systems put in place to handle such situations.
The former Chief Crown Prosecutor in north-west England, Nazir Afzal, weighed in on the case by stating that "everybody responsible for the safeguarding of these young girls and every other victim has failed them”.
He went on to highlight that both police and community groups don’t have the resources they need to successfully spot cases of child grooming and abuse in time to prevent them, and that this needs to be looked at in order to protect those who are the most vulnerable. With more cases coming to light over the years, he went on to say that he believes that this will be a conversation “for years to come” due to the amount of time it could take for reform around this issue.
A statement from Bradford Council said: "The Safeguarding Board will look closely at this case to see if there are any lessons we can learn that could help us keep young people safer."
One of the victims of this abuse, Fiona Goddard, waived her legal right to a lifetime of anonymity in order to show other victims of abuse and child grooming that “there is nothing to be ashamed of”. She released a statement which stated that “Crimes like these haven't always been dealt with appropriately in the past, but I am proud to say that the police and other services are working really hard to change this and the stigma surrounding it…I would like to assure people that if they did come forward, they would be believed and supported”.
The Rochdale case was one of the earlier cases which brought to light the prevalence of child grooming in the UK, reviewing how six girls as young as 13 were exploited in Heywood, Rochdale between 2007 and 2010.
The case found several key failings by both police and social workers who were involved in the case as the girls were repeatedly abused by the gang of nine men, which primarily took place at two takeaway restaurants in the Heywood area where several of the men worked.
A review conducted by the Rochdale Safeguarding Children Board highlighted that the 17 agencies who were primarily responsible for protecting at risk children proved a “shocking” inability to protect the vulnerable girls from exploitation.
Over 180 attempts were made by Sara Rowbotham, the Rochdale Crisis Intervention Team Co-ordinator for the NHS, to alert the relevant authorities to the ongoing abuse between 2003 and 2014 but was ignored and told that witnesses were “not reliable”.
The Rochdale Safeguarding Children Board found that training was “patchy” and suffered from deficiencies in relation to front-line staff, and was one of the main failings which led to the continued abuse of the girls without intervention.
"The report paints a shocking picture of the inability of these agencies to protect these young people successfully," said Jane Booth, chair of the safeguarding board. The Greater Manchester Police (GMP) was found to have failed to recognise child sexual exploitation in the early stages, whilst Rochdale Social Services and GPs had lacked key safeguarding resources which could have helped to identify and raise concerns over child sexual exploitation at earlier points.
Parents and local politicians alive felts that there had been several key points that led to the prolonged abuse of the girls, including the possibility that some of the agencies involved had actively ignored the reports of abuse due to the belief that the girls were “making lifestyle choices”. This could be put down to a lack of training on child grooming within certain agencies, however there was also an instance of a parent calling Children’s Social Care (CS) around 50 times to report his daughter’s "uncontrollable drinking, running away and difficult behaviour", upon which he was told she was “a child prostitute" and he accepted this as “he did not know that it was wrong."
Overall, this incident shows that more safeguarding training could have been used across the board, whether that was for the social services agency, the Greater Manchester Police, or even for the parents of at-risk children to help them provide better support. If the relevant authorities had taken the allegations seriously from the start and investigated the claims of abuse, then there could have potential for action to have been taken sooner to protect the victims from further abuse.
With more cases coming to light year on year, it is becoming clearer that proper safeguarding training needs to be in place at critical points where people can properly intervene to protect vulnerable children. If you are interested in undertaking safeguarding training to raise your awareness of vulnerable people, whether that’s adults or children, then take a look at our online safeguarding courses here. You can also check out our useful and informative downloadable resources, including this poster on the how to spot the signs of child grooming.