It is now nearly 13 years since five men were convicted of sexual offences against girls aged between 12 and 16 in Rotherham. These convictions led to the uncovering of a network of child sexual abusers in the town that has resonated ever since - not only in the UK but internationally.
In 2019, the town was rocked by the revelation that the far right gunman who killed 51 people in two mosques, had written “For Rotherham” on an ammunition clip used in an atrocity at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which left at least 51 people dead.
The scale of the abuse experienced in Rotherham was and remains staggering. Rotherham is the name most identified with such abuse, but it is not the only town scarred by it. Just this week, a review of similar failures by police to protect victims and survivors in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, was published. The report, covering the time period of 2004-2013, documented how Greater Manchester Police had also left children and young people vulnerable to grooming by paedophile gangs. It also identified nearly 100 men who were still a danger to children.
How do victims and survivors, and the places they live in, ever recover from such sexual exploitation? And why was it covered up for so long?
A series of press reports featuring testimonies from survivors of abuse was published by The Times from 2011 onwards. But in 2014, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham between 1997-2013, chaired by Alexis Jay was published, estimating that at least 1,400 children and young people had been sexually exploited and abused in the town for more than a decade prior. The Inquiry identified collective failures by the local council and found that police regarded “many child victims with contempt” and failed to act on their abuse. The council leader resigned and South Yorkshire Police apologised.
A year later, in an inspection report into the governance of Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, Louise Casey found what she called a “Council in denial”, with some in positions of authority not only denying the problem, but also blaming the media for exposing it. In 2017 Operation Clover, run by South Yorkshire Police (SYP), concluded its work with four trials that year, finding 21 offenders guilty of imprisonment, rape, and sexual intercourse with girls aged under 13. Operation Stovewood, led by the National Crime Agency (NCA), started to investigate allegations of abuse between 1997-2013 in 2014. So far, 20 individuals have been convicted and 1,367 crimes recorded, with 1,080 survivors having been identified. The operation continues.
For all the justified attention to police and other agency failures, far less has been written about the media and political framings of the child grooming scandals as they unfolded. In the months before the report on Rochdale was released, The Lead went to Rotherham to see how the legacy of the abuse, the media coverage and the political tussles over the scandal plays out today.
Rotherham, on an autumn day, is quiet. The TV cameras from the world’s media, along with the far right marches by groups that came to the town from 2012 onwards, after the first revelations and convictions, are long gone - although any child sexual exploitation scandal can fire attention up again on a town that feels it will be forever marked by this. Even on a wet weekday many shopfronts are shuttered, and the wind blows away items on sale in the outside market.
Clifton Park, near the centre of town, where many of the girls were sexually assaulted, is tranquil, the leaves on the mature trees turning autumn colours. In the cafe in the park, hot chocolate and a local Yorkshire delicacy, a ginger cake called parkin, is on sale. It is hard to bring together a tranquil town in September with what went on here behind closed doors for more than a decade; the organised violence against and rape of children above take away shops, in alleyways, in the park. And unfair, also, that an entire town should have to shoulder the stigma of the crimes of particular perpetrators and the lack of action by authorities.
Raising the alarm
“I get emotional when I talk about this. I was abused myself over numerous years by one particular man in my family. Then I was abused by his brother. And then, one day, a group of men. I’m a childhood survivor of sexual abuse. And I set up my organisation 30 years ago, because there was this thing in me that I thought, if I can make women safer, then their children will be safe.”
Zlakha Ahmed has run the Rotherham based organisation Apna Haq, (which means Our Right in Urdu), since 1994. It supports local girls and women from minority ethnic communities to escape violence and abuse. Ahmed grew up in the West Midlands town of Telford and from the age of around five, was sexually abused by a family member and then passed on to a wider circle for further abuse. This devastating childhood experience makes her testimony - and her lifelong work supporting girls and women experiencing violence - about her hometown of Rotherham even more compelling.
Apna Haq is tucked away in a quiet street on the edge of the centre, a warm sanctuary within a building hosting other youth services. Ahmed sits down in a meeting room festooned with posters offering advice on escaping violence; on building resilience and on recognising internal, community based and external factors that can shield those responsible for abuse. She explains that she trained as a youth worker decades ago in the town, and met another youth worker, Jayne Senior, who, like her, would be instrumental in uncovering and challenging abuse in Rotherham.
Shortly after Apna Haq was set up, Senior became the manager of the council’s new youth project Risky Business, a young people’s outreach scheme in the town, in 1997. It wasn’t long before Senior was reporting her concerns about exploitation to the authorities. She ultimately reported around 1,400 cases of suspected child sexual exploitation to social workers and the police between 1997 and 2013. Ahmed remembers that at the same time, she was starting to hear from community members about cases of young girls being abused by some men who were of Pakistani heritage. She tells The Lead she was also aware that there was child abuse within the community that was not being reported.
“I felt more so with the police that it was their attitude towards the victims, that I just felt they saw them as second-class citizens, that they didn’t matter."
Others tried to sound the alarm early on. Dr Angie Heal, a strategic drugs analyst working in a partnership post, employed by South Yorkshire Police, told The Lead she first tried reporting links between organised crime in the nearby city of Sheffield.
It’s hard to believe Heal’s work sounded the alarm as early as 2003 and 2006, and still nothing was done. Heal had found that some of the men in Rotherham who were later convicted were also involved in supplying crack cocaine and heroin. This was in one of Heal’s reports, which were widely read - although later, senior officers denied they had seen them. Heal kept the links between drugs and CSE “on the agenda” for four years. Indeed, the Jay Report found that Heal’s first report was presented to the council in November 2004.
Despite the best efforts of Heal, Senior, Ahmed and others, nothing was cutting through. This meant that young people - overwhelmingly, but not always girls - continued to be abused with apparent impunity for years. But Heal is unconvinced the lack of action was down to sensitivity about race.
“The police were used to being accused of racial discrimination, but it didn’t usually stop them investigating people from ethnic minorities. I do think there was something specific going on with the police and council in Rotherham as to why they didn’t investigate the alleged perpetrators… more that the council and the police were too much in cahoots to be objective about what each other was doing.”
A system failing victims and survivors
Heal adds: “I felt more so with the police that it was their attitude towards the victims, that I just felt they saw them as second-class citizens, that they didn’t matter, that they were responsible for their own actions, no matter how young they were.”
Those patterns of not listening to victims who were not considered important, and in some places a sensitivity to perpetrators, was noted in other towns. That failure to act failed victims of all ethnicities.
Elizabeth Harper (not her real name) was one of those children who was failed - and subjected to horrendous abuse. Now a parent, she works alongside experts to prevent child sexual exploitation, but at just 15 she was groomed by a woman who then effectively sold her to men for the price of a top up on her electricity card and cigarettes. Her desperate parents tried to alert the authorities that she was in danger, but their requests for help were ignored. Instead, it was staff members at Risky Business, run by Jayne Senior, who finally rescued her from a dingy flat where she was drugged and raped.
Survivors and those who had tried so hard to raise the alarm, were vindicated in the Jay report. But it made for devastating reading. Angie Heal remembers sitting in her car in a supermarket car park, crying as she heard about the scale of abuse uncovered by the report. She was previously unaware of the numbers of children and young people involved. When she heard the news presenter saying, ‘an independent report had uncovered over 1,400 children had been abused in…’ she at first thought they were going to say Syria, so was completely shocked when they said Rotherham.
In an interview, Elizabeth tells The Lead that it took years for her to recognise that she and other victims were not at fault. She says the Jay report, and then taking part in documentaries such as the two made by BBC Panorama, helped her understand the failure of authorities.
“The day it all appeared [the Jay report] was indescribable,” she says. “Rotherham, this small town, was now known for the worst child protection scandal in history. We are known for this wherever you go, it’s the first thing people say.” She was awarded compensation from South Yorkshire Police for her ordeal in 2018 and her book, Snatched, gives a compelling account of the pattern of abuse that she and others were put through. She also successfully sued her perpetrator.
Walking through a sensitive story
Alison Holt, the social affairs editor for the BBC, was one of the journalists who covered the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal when it finally hit the headlines, making two key Panorama documentaries over the course of a year, along with other reports. Looking back, she praises the tenacity of survivors, without whom the scandal would never have finally come to light.
“It only really happened because the really brave survivors of abuse were willing to speak about what happened,” says Holt. “It takes journalists to come in and look at what happened. But above all, it takes those individuals who have gone through hell in different ways to… have the self belief, and often the backing of their families, to speak up.”
Holt pays tribute to her producers, Esella Hawkey and Joe Casey, and the work they did listening to the traumatic testimonies of those who had been abused - the background work gaining trust and supporting interviewees that often goes unnoticed by viewers and readers.
“If this had been dealt with in the right way, then the far right wouldn’t have been able to hijack the argument, because it would have been addressed by the authorities. The right wing just filled a void.”
She recalls that what struck her when she visited Rotherham was how “warm and welcoming people were” but that at the same time, “a lot of people were also uncomfortable with being so closely associated with a scandal such as this” - which is understandable. While some journalists were hugely aware of the sensitivities, others were not. Some media headlines were sensationalised; emotive and scarring to survivors of serious sexual crimes; others were racially inflammatory. This made the scandal difficult to report at times.
Holt says, “the really important thing was ensuring that the young people involved could tell their story in an open way. And then it was our job to back it up with the evidence. And I think if you can do that then you are in the best position to perhaps navigate those sensitivities.” For a time, though, the lack of action and a focus by some media reports around ‘Asian grooming gangs’ that added heat rather than light to the scandal, “everything coalesced around Rotherham”. It became a lightning rod for anger and prejudice.
A town divided
There was a hostile environment towards all Muslim men in the town for the sins of of a few, and in 2015 that hostility turned fatal. On 10 August, an 81-year-old grandfather, Muhsin Ahmed, was first racially abused and then attacked by two men on his way to the mosque. One of them made the false accusation that Mr Ahmed was a ‘groomer’ and then the two of them set on him. He died eleven days later.
A few weeks later, in September, members of the Muslim community had attended a demonstration by the group United Against Fascism. On the same day the far right group, Britain First, held a counter protest. More than 800 police officers attended Rotherham that day. The protestors were funnelled past a pub, the William Fry, now closed, which was known to be a hang out for right wing groups. There was a clash in the street near the pub, not far from the town’s centre and 12 men from the local Muslim community were arrested and charged.
In February 2016, two men were found guilty of killing Muhsin Ahmed, with Dale Jones of Norwood St, Rotherham found guilty of his murder and Damien Hunt, of Doncaster Road, convicted of his manslaughter.
The Muslim men - the “Rotherham 12” as they became known - were acquitted of public disorder offences later that year, in November 2016. But the scars remain. In 2018, Dr Joanne Britton, a sociologist at the University of Sheffield, published research exploring the impact of the child exploitation scandal in Rotherham on Muslim men. One participant felt the sense of one community in the town changed afterwards, while others said they had experienced increased racism after the scandal and that it had threatened their sense of belonging. More positively, accounts also showed “strategies adopted to resist exclusion”.
TellMAMA, an organisation which measures anti-Muslim attacks, found there was an increase in racist incidents reported in the local area after the scandal became known. And the atmosphere in the town when the far right groups came and marched was tense, to say the least.
“Generations of very vulnerable children were being abused on a daily basis without even any acknowledgement that that was happening."
Ahmed remembers the atmosphere well: “We had the far right coming every single month”. She adds, somewhat wryly, that she had grown up being told that the men in her community were “abusive and misogynist, that’s why they don’t let women out of the house. But now we had the police ringing us up as an organisation and telling us to inform service users not to go out. What was the difference?”
In August 2017, two years after Muhsin Ahmed’s murder, the local MP for Rotherham, Sarah Champion, wrote an article for the Sun newspaper, which carried a line, “Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploting white girls.” (She later said that the article had been altered and resigned as shadow equalities minister. The Lead has contacted her for comment for this article.)
Ahmed recalled fearing, “This is going to put us back in that place.” Local people felt then that because policing had failed children and young people, it was fair game to set on anyone from the community after that - to make an example of them.
A bigger picture
But was it fair - and correct - to single out an entire community, loosely often called the ‘Asian’ community in Rotherham, for the crimes of some male perpetrators? The scandal took place at a time when Britain was, in effect, waking up to the problem of child sexual exploitation.
Around the same time, cases were being reported - with convictions - in many towns and cities in the UK, including Bradford, Newcastle, Rochdale, Bristol, Oxford and Oldham. There have been many striking similarities in the cases - that children have been sexually exploited; that authorities from councils, to police forces, have not done enough; that the exploitation has been committed mainly by men - but with a smaller number of women having been identified or convicted of grooming - and in some cases, a number of men from South Asian communities have been convicted. Often, the media and political framing characterised these crimes as being carried out by men of colour almost always on white victims.
“We are protecting some of the original girls who were abused. We are nearly 20 years on and this doesn’t leave them."
In Rochdale close by, there was a similar scandal. Maggie Oliver, then a detective with Greater Manchester Police (GMP), now founder and chair of the Maggie Oliver Foundation, worked on the team investigating abuse in the town but in the end resigned, feeling that children had been failed. Although there were nine convictions in 2012, she felt the scale of the abuse was far wider.
She explains: “Generations of very vulnerable children were being abused on a daily basis without even any acknowledgement that that was happening. They were being dismissed, in inverted commas, because this is a word I would never use, as ‘child prostitutes’, and were being judged as making lifestyle choices… I have always seen these children as very vulnerable victims.
“They are not responsible for what has happened to them. They are exploited and they are way out of their depth. The men that are abusing them are extremely sophisticated. They are very experienced in what they do. And because the authorities that turned a blind eye for so long, have been able to develop their expertise and actually ways of avoiding accountability.”
She blames local and national governments for not addressing this early enough, leaving the country with what she feels is sophisticated networks of abusers.
“A child picked up in Rochdale could end up in Rotherham or in Birmingham or in Huddersfield,” she tells us. “Because the perpetrators pass these kids around, like sweets. I often say that a drug dealer will sell a bag of heroin or coke once, but a gang can sell a child over and over again and make a lot of money. They don't care about the child. The child is a commodity and the authorities sadly have allowed that to happen.”
Oliver was faced with an agonising choice - to stay or to go, when she felt she wasn’t being heard. “I knew I had to do something about it. It was the most difficult decision of my whole life and it almost destroyed me,” she says.
Now, as chair of a foundation that supports the adult survivors of child sexual abuse and exploitation, Oliver says the aftermath of trauma is present years later. “We are protecting some of the original girls who were abused. We are nearly 20 years on and this doesn’t leave them… I believe the trauma of abuse can be overcome with the right support... I truly believe that a child who has been abused is then wrapped in a network of support that acknowledges that they have been exploited they can recover but that authorities need to prioritise that - it can’t be just empty words and promises.”
Perhaps the cruellest cut is that some victims ended up being arrested after being coerced into criminality by their abusers. Some were even then given criminal records. Harriet Wistrich, the founder and director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, has worked with women who were abused as girls in Rochdale to hold the police accountable for the way they were treated. She has also worked with women sexually exploited in a number of cities to challenge the disclosure and retention of criminal records and to change the law on this.
“These criminal records are really a record of being abused and exploited… even though the girls had moved on with their lives they still had those convictions coming up until recently, when we won a legal case on getting them filtered out,” says Wistrich.
Hijacking the narrative
Instead of the police acting on the many chances they had to arrest those accused of child rape and criminality, says Maggie Oliver, they tiptoed around an emerging issue. Not only did they not protect young girls and women, but the void left by the lack of prosecutions and poor media coverage left an open goal for the right. In Rotherham, the far right held marches every month in the town.
Oliver tells The Lead: “If this had been dealt with in the right way, then the far right wouldn’t have been able to hijack the argument, because it would have been addressed by the authorities. The right wing just filled a void”, adding, “It was so wrong for the authorities to turn a blind eye to this kind of abuse. We should not cherry pick which rapists we prosecute. It doesn’t matter to me where the child comes from or where the abuser comes from. We just need to deal with child abuse.”
That void - the media feeling nervous about reporting rumours that some men from the Pakistani Muslim community were exploiting girls in Rotherham, the police and council failing to act - affected everyone, not those responsible for the abuse.
Ahmed also stresses: “From the work we do as an organisation, not just from my personal experience, these men that are abusive, they abuse anybody that they can. This idea, that these men respected us as Muslim women, my own experience tells me that isn’t true.”
Wistrich says: “There is a narrative about the Asian grooming gangs targeting white girls but there was this reality certainly in Rochdale and similarly in Rotherham. The media reporting did show that many girls who tended to be targeted were from socially excluded working class. Some were in care, and other typical targets. However, what the narrative missed out on is that the women from the same communities were being sexually abused and targeted.”
Indeed, the Jay report makes clear that young people from other minorities, and other children who may have been deemed vulnerable, such as those with disabilities, were targeted too.
Oliver, looking back, feels that the very fact that some media reporting avoided making note of a “real feature of that particular organised abuse”, which was the ethnicity of some abusers, had an unforeseen consequence. “It gave a huge opportunity for the right wing groups to say you are not doing anything about this due to political correctness. But most of the girls I worked with were not aligned to that view, they just felt taken advantage of. From the policing point of view it was convenient for them not to do their job, which they don’t do anyway, they could say it is just going to promote problems.”
Heal does not believe that the police didn’t deal with it because of the ethnicity of the perpetrators. She also worries that having a laser focus on ethnicity may benefit other perpetrators.
“By focusing on the ethnicity issue, then the perpetrators who don’t fit that profile can get away with it as people won’t think of them as abusers. Victims from other communities can be hidden as well. It’s great that the media raised it, but it's also skewed the discussion as well.”
The scale of the challenge
Whatever the history of how organised networks systematically exploited children and young people in towns and cities in the early 2000s, this problem has sadly not gone away. Indeed,academic Dr Sarah Colley, whose area of research is that of multi perpetrator child sexual exploitation, and in-depth interviews with police forces about their response, says the scale of the problem is perhaps one reason why the police are perceived to have failed victims and survivors, with one police officer describing the investigation as being a “game of whack a mole - they would investigate one group of perpetrators, think they had got to the end of the group and then found out that the group actually extended further and they were actually dealing with more offenders, more victim survivors than they could ever imagine.” She concludes, “I think they are struggling with the scale of exploitation.”
A report for an Inquiry Panel on child sexual exploitation by organised networks, published by Parliament last year and chaired by Alexis Jay, found that although CSE has been a “designated strategic policing priority since 2015”, “less is now known and understood about the prevalence of this appalling crime than was the case prior to 2015.” It argued in its summary: “Any denial of the scale of child sexual exploitation – either at national level or locally in England and Wales – must be challenged.”
"Child abuse goes on everywhere. But these grooming gangs were allowed to escape justice and so became the new organised crime gangs. All child abuse is life destroying and we can’t ignore it in any form.”
The report stated: “More significantly, there appears to be a flawed assumption that this form of child sexual abuse is on the wane. There is also a suspicion that some do not wish to be labelled as ‘another Rochdale or Rotherham’.” Chillingly, the report stated that such sexual exploitation of children by groups is “much more widespread than currently identified by data. Local authorities and police forces have failed to keep pace with the changing nature of this harm.”
Similarly, the Centre for Expertise on child sexual abuse, in a report published in February 2023 about the trends in official data on this crime, found that police recorded 103,055 child sexual abuses during the year 2021-2022, a 15% rise on the previous year. Court proceedings for the year up to 2021 resulted in an improved conviction rate. The report said: “Defendants were predominantly male (98%)... Almost nine in 10 (89%) were white, compared with 82% of the population of England and Wales.” The typical wait from reporting a crime to the conclusion of a court case for a child was over 600 days. There was wide regional variation relative to the child population in each police force area.
Perhaps one reason is another finding from Dr Colley’s research - the jeopardy that children who have been abused face when or if they do feel they can go to the police. Police participants she talked to shared “the threats of the most awful violence” that children attempting to give evidence were facing, including rape threats against themselves and their families, threats to set their houses on fire, “the most awful threats of violence.” She adds: “We need to recognise this - this is torture, rape and torture of children.”
So many of those interviewed believe that if this problem had been tackled sooner, children could have been protected. And as more evidence emerges about child sexual exploitation, so does a deeper understanding of the scale of the problem - and how there is no easy fix, no single group responsible. Colley says of her work, “I’ve been researching this crime for more than ten years. It is endemic, and it’s going on everywhere. It is impossible to profile offenders, although my research suggests we could say that these are in most cases ordinary men who are very good at identifying vulnerability.”
Oliver: “I am not saying in any way, shape or form that all child abusers are Pakistani men, most abuse in the UK is mainly perpetrated within the family. Child abuse goes on everywhere. But these grooming gangs were allowed to escape justice and so became the new organised crime gangs. All child abuse is life destroying and we can’t ignore it in any form.”
In Rotherham, Zlaka Ahmed feels the rhetoric and the crimes have left deep scars. “The sons of women we know from the Pakistani communities, are called paedophiles and groomers at primary school. This is the aftermath.” But she also calls the men in her community to account. When a (now ex-) Labour peer, Lord Nazir Ahmed of Rotherham was convicted of sexually assaulting two children in the 1970s, she asked prominent community members to comment publicly on his conviction. “I needed some men to speak out. Every single man had an excuse.”
Colley says, “The NCA put Operation Stovewood into Rotherham - the single largest law enforcement investigation into non familial child abuse in the UK. They have got 200 officers working in just that one area. This is just one town in South Yorkshire but my research suggests you could put an Operation Stovewood into every region of the UK, to pick up all the allegations of abuse that have been made. We need to have a national conversation about how we resource this properly.”
Rotherham may have the dubious privilege of having started this national conversation but at the heart of it should be the victims and survivors. Elizabeth Harper, for her part, points to those whose trauma she feels has not yet been recognised, “the effect that the abuse had on the families. Rotherham had forgotten victims - grandmothers, parents, siblings. They were victims too.”