Eastern Eye (UK)
‘PANDEMIC OF CHILD ABUSE’
After an 11-month follow-up investigation, we reveal the… …in the UK’s south Asian communities
THE government, police and councils are failing thousands of south Asian children, some just a few months old, who have been sexually abused, an exclusive Eastern Eye investigation has revealed.
Using freedom of information requests, Eastern Eye asked 50 councils and 13 police forces how they collate figures for victims and perpetrators.
Their replies showed:
• all forces and all local authorities collect data differently, including what to call different ethnic groups.
• some reported it was too time-consuming to analyse the figures because of the thousands of victims.
• shockingly, Eastern Eye discovered the Home Office does not expect forces to break down the ethnicity of victims.
A former chief crown prosecutor, an MP, charities and the victims’ commissioner have all welcomed Eastern Eye’s findings.
“It is the pandemic that will outlive this one, and it requires the level of action of the government that they belatedly put into the Covid pandemic because it will carry on,” warned Nazir Afzal, a commissioner on the Centre for Social Justice’s (CSJ) child sex abuse inquiry into grooming gangs.
The CSJ report, chaired by former home secretary and ex-chancellor Sajid Javid MP, concluded that in this country, child sexual abuse “is nothing short of an epidemic”.
“Children and their trust are being abused on an hourly basis,” Afzal told Eastern Eye. “Somebody somewhere is abusing a child. It horrifies you as much as it horrifies me, as it horrifies anybody who has a sense of morality and affection for their fellow citizens.”
The former chief prosecutor in the north of England said after the convictions of south Asian grooming gangs in Rochdale, Oxford and Huddersfield, authorities did start to collect data. However, things appear to have worsened over the past few years because officials had “taken their eye off the ball”.
“People become lazy and complacent, they think it’s somebody else’s business rather than their own,” said Afzal.
“As a consequence, once again, because I know this from experience, victims do not get the justice they deserve.
“Unless you know the extent of your problem, you don’t know what resources you need to solve it. If you are able to say, ‘well, look, our data says there were hardly any cases last year,’ then it’s very easy for an authority, police, social services, whomever, to say, ‘ok, that means we need to attach three lawyers or three barristers or three police officers.
“Resources follow data, and if your data is incomplete, then your resources will be incomplete, and that means victims will not get the service they deserve.”
The victims’ commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, told Eastern Eye her office was currently working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to investigate how authorities collate and use data. Without proper data collection, mapping and analysis, she said, groups which help survivors of child abuse will not be given adequate resources.
“In the light of the connections with Rotherham, where we have strong ideas about what role ethnic characteristics played in how seriously abuse was or was not taken, it seems shocking that the stats are not being kept,” Baird said.
This lack of what the commissioner described as “any real spirit of inquiry” into the level of service authorities provide meant victims were unlikely to come forward to complain about abuse.
“It is, of course, a sort of circle, which goes backwards to discourage people from making reports in the first place,” Baird said.
“They think there won’t be cultural sympathy, that they’re highly unlikely to get the support and that there won’t be a prosecution in the end. So they’ll put themselves through a lot of pain for not very much.
“What is essential is an active attempt to get involved with those communities, so that reassurance could readily be given.”
Karma Nirvana, the national charity which helps victims of forced marriage and honour-based violence, recognises the lack of “active attempt to get involved” by authorities.
The chief executive, Natasha Rattu, revealed one recent example.
The police, she said, asked her charity to persuade a 15-year-old south Asian victim to complain after she came under pressure from her family to recant her allegations of sexual abuse by a relative.
“Our question (is) whether – had she not been from a minority community, and had culture not been an issue – would that have been the same response to a white 15-year-old girl making the same disclosures? Absolutely not.” said Rattu.
“They would be going in there to safeguard and protect that girl. But that protection got slowed down, and the context of this being a 15-year-old girl being sexually abused got lost.
“So, it’s really important we see this as abuse. There is no explanation within culture to justify or legitimise it. Abuse is abuse, and that would be the message we would want to send out.”
South Asian survivors have told Eastern Eye they felt every authority, from local leaders to the criminal justice system, let them down at every turn.
One judge, who wanted to remain anonymous, agreed that institutions were failing child abuse victims.
“Allegations of child sexual abuse, without physical evidence of the attack, are very unlikely to lead to prosecutions,” they said. “They are same issues broadly as for rape prosecutions. It’s one [person’s] word against another, and one of them is a minor.
“For this reason, when social services are notified by a parent or relative that child sexual abuse is suspected, they will look to the non-suspect parent to protect the child by excluding the alleged abuser from the home and denying them contact with the child.
“The ‘protective parent’ will be directed to make an application for a child arrangement order in the family court.”
In some child abuse cases, the accuser may not automatically get legal aid or funding from the public purse.
“It is quite common for such a case to be tried with three people in the court. The judge, the parent bringing forward the accusation, and the alleged abuser,” explained the judge. “Where the accusing party does not qualify for legal help, the alleged abuser does, which makes the exercise precarious.
“In these times, police evidence isn’t always available either because the force can’t keep up with requests for statements to be disclosed or because they haven’t made a prosecution decision.
“A psychological or other expert evidence report is very expensive, and the parents may not be able to afford it. And in any event such reports, or a report from the child and family court reporting service would also only be available after this ‘finding of fact’ stage.”
And the significance of race is often lost on institutions.
Last year, Eastern Eye revealed the culture of silence among Asian communities, and how so-called community leaders forcefully bury the problem of child sexual abuse. They put victims under pressure to hide secrets by blaming them for bringing shame and stigma on their communities.
Sukhvinder* (see box story, page 6) was sexually abused by a priest in her Sikh temple. It started when she was six and lasted several years.
She felt ashamed and felt she could not tell anyone what was happening.
Sukhvinder said her abuser sexually harmed both boys and girls, but he was not held accountable for his actions because the community did not believe priests were capable of paedophilia.
The experience would go on to scar her in later life, especially at the hands of her former husband, who was coercive, violent and an alcoholic.
When Sukhvinder went to the committee of priests, she said they blamed her rather than her abuser.
“He (my former husband) treated me like a bit of used goods,” she told Eastern Eye. “He used to get drunk every weekend, beat me up, call me a slapper, rape me, and then say this is what I loved because of what happened to me as a child.”
Sukhvinder revealed she went to court to get a restraining order against him, but the system did not help her.
“He said to the judge that I was making it all up because as a child I had been abused, and I was not mentally stable,” she said. “He convinced the court that I thought everyone was abusing me because of what happened to me when I was a child.” Last year, Eastern Eye revealed how social workers believed the police and councils were afraid to tackle child sexual abuse among south Asian communities because they were worried about being branded as racists.
Aneeta Prem, the founder of the Freedom Charity which helps children escape forced marriage and abuse, said this was unacceptable.
“When we’re talking about child abuse, race shouldn’t come into it. We should be just looking at protection for young girls and women,” she said.
“So, it is crucially important the ethnicity is recorded, that we know what groups are committing these offences and what type of people they are. Being politically sensitive over it doesn’t work.
“We need to be strong, to call it out for what it is, and if it offends a group because they are the perpetrators, then so be it. Protection is the most important thing.”
During an 11-month investigation Eastern Eye found the Home Office has only recently decided to ask police forces to record the ethnicity of perpetrators.
This newspaper contacted the Labour MP for Ealing-Southall, Virendra Sharma, who is also the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on honour-based abuse.
He asked the home secretary, Priti Patel, through written questions, “what assessment she has made of the potential merits of collecting ethnicity as part of child sexual abuse data?”
The safeguarding minister, Victoria Atkins, replied that as of May 13, the police had recorded 90,000 cases of child sexual abuse, a 300 per cent rise since 2013.
“The government is clear that understanding possible drivers of crime is key to developing ways to prevent offending and better support victims,” Atkins wrote.
“That is why the home secretary introduced a new requirement for police forces to collect ethnicity data for those arrested and held in custody as a result of their suspected involvement in group-based child sexual exploitation in March 2021.
“Complying with the requirement will be voluntary for one year to allow forces to update their systems, after which it will become mandatory.”
Eastern Eye asked both the Home Office and the Department for Education, which is responsible for child safety, specific questions about sexual abuse among south Asian children.
The Home Office sent a generic response, which Eastern Eye said it would not publish. The department of education refused to answer, despite an email saying it would respond.
But in the written answer, Atkins failed to answer one crucial question – was the ethnicity of victims being recorded? Not always, was the short answer. “Within some statutory returns, West Yorkshire Police do provide details of ethnic appearance although the Home Office statutory return specifically relating to child sexual abuse requires no details of the victims (sic) ethnicity,” revealed Wayne Horner, detective chief inspector for safeguarding at West Yorkshire Police.
Sharma told Eastern Eye he was “deeply concerned that adequate data is not being collected to protect children”.
“Children from different ethnic groups may need specialised interventions to keep them safe, the same thing doesn’t work for all, and without the data it will be hard to know,” the MP said.
“We need a clearer picture of who is affected, and this data would give that. A unified measure, one replicated across the country, would be much safer, and make comparisons easier.
“Some forces could be failing children and their families, but (they could be) hiding behind the limitations of the data we currently have. There is no excuse for these different modes of collection.
“I am pleased to have supported your investigation by asking questions of the home secretary, and I will ask her in parliament to make reporting of child abuse data uniform across the country and to make the inclusion of ethnicity mandatory in that data.”
Eastern Eye will be sending all the responses it received from the councils and police forces to the victims’ commissioner to share with the EHRC.
*Her name has been changed to protect her identity.