Sex Crimes

What Is The Rotherham Child Sex Exploitation Scandal All About?


Rotherham Town Hall
Credit: Paul Eggleston

Beginning early last week, a bombshell report completely roiled the British media and has managed to travel across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States. An independent report declared that about 1,400 children in the community of Rotherham (population: just shy of 250,000) had been subjected to sexual exploitation across the past 16 years, and very little had been done to help them.

Attention has zeroed in on the racial and ethnic component—the suspected perpetrators are typically described as Asian, though it appears they're primarily Pakistani. Combined with a local case from 2010 where a pack of five Asian men were imprisoned for grooming teen girls for sex, England is now also dealing with an increased backlash or threats against its Muslim residents, according to The Guardian.

There have been several cases of "child grooming" and sexual exploitation reported in England in recent years. In 2012, there were two big cases, one involving another pack of Asian men and one involving a pack of white guys. Guess which one got the most media attention?

The report, by Professor Alexis Jay, does discuss ethnic issues that contributed to this crisis, but it's actually really just a small part of her report. The majority of the report is made up of descriptions governmental failures that will be starkly familiar to critics of official bureaucracy—a nasty cocktail of turf wars, inscrutable processes, and institutional apathy.

But how seriously to treat the 1,400 claim? That is probably the first thought of skeptical Americans who may still remember our pedophile Satanic cult panics and daycare abuse panics from the 1980s that turned out to be fabricated and led to innocent people imprisoned. The Brits have had some high-profile, horrifying child sex scandals recently, so it's fair to examine whether people are primed to leap at every new revelation.

It turns out that Jay actually directly consulted only 66 individual case files, nearly all of which she determined were victims of sexual exploitation. Her full estimate comes from examining the minutes of meetings of various committees that discussed the numbers of children affected and had access to lists of children and sometimes more thorough summaries of the situations of those receiving counseling. Despite this vagueness, Jay is not only sure of the scope, she thinks she may be too conservative.

Even if the estimate is wildly off in the opposite direction, though, a read through the 153-page full report will make it clear this isn't a wild case of recovered memories or coached testimony. Some lowlights about the way the town of Rotherham has handled the situation:

  • Jay has much praise for The Risky Business Project, created by youth workers in 1997 to help serve at-risk teens and young adults. It is an outreach group that worked directly in the community and appeared to have good relationships with both the youths they were helping and the police. They gathered a lot of information about what was actually happening on the street with at-risk youths. But according to Jay, Risky Business had a terrible relationship with local children's social care services. Sources told Jay that the bureaucrats were actually jealous of Risky Business' success and conspired to reduce their influence and bring them under an agency-managed umbrella. They succeeded, and Jay worries this will hamper Risky Business moving forward.
  • In response to sexual exploitation claims, police used stereotypically familiar reasons not to pursue accusations. How was she dressed? Was she drunk or on drugs? Did she fight back? Jay noted that police or Child Protective Services frequently used these as reasons not to push for charges.
  • In the section on ethnicity and its relationship to the exploitation (which takes up less than five pages of the full report), Jay notes that young people believe that police won't arrest Asian suspects for fear of being called racist, and managers told social care workers to be cautious about identifying race in their reports. But Jay also notes that authorities have only vaguely tried to build ties to the Muslim community through male leaders and rarely consulted with women or girls. As such, they didn't seem to be aware that Asian girls were also targets of sexual grooming. This helped feed a cultural myth that Pakistani predators were targeting white girls for sex as some sort of anti-Western thing when in fact they were also preying on girls within their own community, which is typically how such exploitation works. Elsewhere in the report, the men suspected of exploiting girls were also seen with trafficking drugs and guns. In other words, they were thugs. There was little evidence that these men were being protected by the Muslim community at large, and in fact, leaders were upset at police for not tackling the problem.
  • There is a whole section on the role taxi drivers play in the predatory grooming, helping transport the victims around from school and bringing them to the men who would give them gifts in exchange for sex. I bring this up because there is a licensing process for taxi drivers in Rotherham, and so it's something to remember whenever anybody insists that we need government regulation to protect us from potentially dangerous people from ride-sharing services.

When all is said and done, there's a lot to chew over here in the full report. Outrage isn't an answer. And I'm still a little skeptical of the full number given the methodology. Many of the problems are due not to anomalies, but from a familiar result of entrenched bureaucratic apathy. A couple of leaders stepping down likely won't fix this.