The case of sexual exploitation of at least 1,400 of children in Rotherham was in the Children’s Commissioner’s own words ‘a scandal’.
For 16 years girls had reported crimes against them and they were not adequately investigated by police or the council.
A independent inquiry carried out by Professor Alexis Jay found that children had been raped repeatedly and threatened to never utter a word. Those who did tell of their abuse were systematically ignored.
All over the country pockets of horrendous abuse against children, young teens and women have come to light . While none have been of the scale seen in Rotherham, in 2014 Northumbria Police carried out its own investigation into sexual violence against women and young girls.
So far 120 people have been arrested and 21 people charged with offences against 60 women and teenagers under the police’s Operation Sanctuary.
The number of victims shocked the community and Dr Maggie Atkinson, said that the Rotherham case and arrests made in the North East prove that these crimes pervade a region’s class and race.
She said: “For girls in cases like Rotherham the sad fact is that they weren’t listened to, supported and acted for and there will be, I’ve no doubt, more to come in terms for further searching and questions on why it could happen.
“I don’t think there’s a place in England where you could say ‘it never happens here’.”
In the North East the men arrested were described as ‘coming from a range of communities’. In South Yorkshire the men were predominantly South Asian.
Dr Atkinson said: “We have said consistently and what we continue to say is one of the many patterns of abuse is South Asian males and white young females but this sort of abuse happens to black girls and Asian girls and it’s done by white perpetrators.
“The Crown Prosecution Service will tell you that 80-90% of abusers are male and 80-90% are white and we can’t ignore it when it happens with Asian males and white girls but neither can you ignore the cases where there are no Asians.
She said her deputy, Sue Berelowitz, has previously undertaken her own investigations into the widespread abuse of children and teenage girls and said that the scale of the problem across the country was far bigger than anyone could have imagined.
She said the sheer numbers of child victims ‘continues to be shocking’ but that it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The prevalence of abuse isn’t something confined to one or two areas of the country, she argues, but the real scandal she said is that adults in the case of Rotherham turned a blind eye.
She said: “It’s the perpetrator, and the perpetrator’s twisted behaviour that led to victims being victims. And we need to turn our eyes towards the victim and help them talk about it and seek safety.”
Northumbria Police’s handling of Operation Sanctuary with its 60 known victims, while still far too high a figure, might show that people were listened to at an earlier date than they were in Rotherham, where significant harm continued for well over a decade.
“The issue was not necessarily that professionals didn’t know how to do their jobs.
“They knew what was going on and they refused to take any notice and they refused to let it come to light.
“That’s grown adults in positions of authority who refused to do anything about what was happening.
“One has to hope that something has been nipped in the bud (in the North East). The big thing is that because of the numbers in this region, it’s quite possible that when those girls told, they were listened to in ways that it seemed they weren’t listened to in Rotherham.”
She is full of praise for the range of top quality services for children and young people in the North East, and pleased that the police and the Police and Crime Commissioner Vera Baird has continued to keep abuse, whether it is domestic or sexual at the top of the policing agenda.
Many of the charities and Government funded groups were showcased at a well attended conference held by the High Sheriff of Tyne and Wear Ruth Thompson OBE called Hearing the Voice of the Child at Northumbria University on Thursday.
It was a gathering together of agencies looking around the issue of children and teens who grow up in homes where domestic violence. It also looked at young women and men entering into abusive ‘first relationships’.
Dr Atkinson, who was former director of Children’s Services in Gateshead, between 2003 and 2010 said it took no time at all for her to decide to come and speak at the event, despite the hundreds of invitations she gets from organisations.
She said: “I used to work in the North East and have a very strong connection to the region.
“Children who live with and are affected by domestic violence and abuse tend to be very shameful about it and in some ways the victims blame themselves. They think ‘I must have done something’ or ‘I must have asked for it’.
“The North East isn’t the only region doing this depth of work. Services all over the country take this very seriously.
“There was a time when the police wouldn’t actually have gone across the door step in domestic incidents. They would have left it as a domestic and they didn’t take it very seriously.
“This region isn’t on its own but it’s different to see the region coming together around the Police and Crime Commissioner and also supported by the universities, local authority and having a real focus.”
She believes this same high standard of work on children experiencing abuse between parents or a parent’s partner, extends to services right across the North East, including those working with the victims of sexual exploitation. Many of these groups will have been integral to Operation Sanctuary’s investigation.
“The North East is coherent as a region with top quality services,” said Dr Atkinson. “There is a huge determination from the local authority, university and media to paint the region in a positive light.
“It’s four and a half years since I left Gateshead but our elected members worked considerably with young people to keep their finger on the pulse with what’s going on and our schools did the same.
“I’ve got memories of how well schools listened to young people.
“The children who were vulnerable in Gateshead were very definitely under our radar and a great deal of work was done with them.
“It was very important to us that we got to those children and staff worked beyond the call of duty.”
Communication, as ever, she believes is the key to preventing abuse in the future.
She said: “Every service in the country has had a huge wake-up call. What we all have to pay really close attention to is that services are being delivered by more and more different groups and people. I haven’t got a problem with who delivers the service - it’s about communication and picking up the phone.”
She described the Rotherham case as one such ‘wake-up’ call, but the death of four-year-old Daniel Pelka, who was starved and beaten to death by his mother Magdelena Luczak, and her partner, Mariusz Krezolek, in Coventry, as another defining moment in her time as Children’s Commissioner in terms of the importance of better communication between agencies.
She said many agencies and organisations across the country relating to the care of children and young vulnerable women would now undergo an intense review of the way their services are run.
Yet she is confident things work well in the North East.
She said: “The North East has a lot going for it. Not least its absolute commitment to top quality services. There’s an identity that says ‘I’m from the North East’.”
For reports, information and advice on protecting children’s rights in England go to www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk .