More than 350 young people in Oxfordshire have been victims of sexual exploitation over the last 15 years, according to a serious case review.
The review, published this morning by the Oxfordshire Safeguarding Children Board, found Oxfordshire County Council had failed to act upon the child sex grooming scandal, which saw seven men imprisoned for a total of 95 years as part of Operation Bullfinch.
Girls were systematically groomed with alcohol, drugs, gifts and attention to think their abusers were their boyfriends, and in some cases children were treated as wayward teenagers consenting to sex, the report found.
Personal experiences and testimony from the victims reveals they were forced to have sex in exchange for the drink and drugs, were physically assaulted, threatened, drugged, raped and sold for sex, becoming so drawn into the world of their abusers that they lost any ability to make informed choices about what they did.
But the girls accounts were disbelieved or thought exaggerated by Oxfordshire staff the report found, and the girls were seen as consenting to their abuse and bringing problems upon themselves.
In addition, staff did not understand the law around sexual consent and there was an apparent tolerance or failure to be alarmed by unlawful sexual activity, the review found.
Oxfordshire’s organisational response was weak and lacked overview, and it was the efforts of junior staff which detected the pattern of group child sexual exploitation. But the report stated Oxfordshire now has a nationally renowned level of expertise in approaching multi-agency CSE investigations.
This followed the set up in 2012 of a specialist team, involving Thames Valley Police and local health services, called Kingfisher, to oversee the issue in the county.
Kingfisher has identified a total of 373 known children at risk of sexual exploitation over 15 years, the review found.
Independent chair of the Oxfordshire Safeguarding Children Board, Maggie Blyth said: It is shocking that these children were subjected to such appalling sexual exploitation for so long.’
Ms Blyth said: ‘It is clear that between 2005 and 2010 despite the efforts of some front line staff working with children individually, there was no understanding of the type of abuse which later emerged, a culture across all organisations that failed to see that these children were being groomed in an organised way by groups of men and therefore there was no concerted or organised response across Oxfordshire agencies working with children against this terrible child abuse.’
The OSCB issued a series of 13 recommendations and 60 learning points for agencies and professionals, and a request for the Government to review the current guidance of sexual consent to make it harder for abusers to succeed.
Among national recommendations, the Board asked the Government to clarify the current guidance on sexual consent - especially around attitudes to underage sex and ever-lower ages for which a child is deemed to be able to consent - to make it harder for abusers to succeed
The Board also recommended relevant government departments to review why a significant proportion of those found guilty of group CSE come from Pakistani or Muslim backgrounds, to inform prevention strategies.
Five of the seven perpetrators were of Pakistani heritage. But Unlike Rotherham, which was castigated by Government troubleshooter Louise Casey for ignoring the fact men from Pakistani heritage community were perpetrating abuse, the report saw ‘no evidence of any agency not acting when the should have done because of racial sensitivities’.
Oxfordshire CC’s director for children, education and families, Jim Leivers said: ‘We fully accept that we made many mistakes and missed opportunities to stop the abuse.’
‘They suffered dreadfully at the hands of these violent men, and despite many attempts we failed to keep them safe while they were in our care.’
Mr Leivers said the authority would have stopped the abuse had it been aware of the grooming process, which was ‘organised crime on a massive scale that we had not seen before’.
He admitted it ‘was wholly wrong’ for some of the teenage girls to have been seen to be consenting to sex, and said Oxfordshire harboured ‘no illusions about child sexual exploitation now’.
Mr Leivers explained that Oxfordshire had worked hard to make improvements to tackle CSE and had already implemented all the recommendations for improvement.