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The horrors of the Oxford child sex abuse case must not be used as an excuse for covert racism

2013 May 16
by Paul Vallely

The distressing detail raised by the Oxford child abuse case raises echoes of the similar case of the grooming of children for sex in Rochdale last year. In both under-age white girls, as young as 11 and 13, were the victims. In both a gang of Asian men were the perpetrators. In both the girls were from vulnerable backgrounds, including local authority care homes. In both drugs, alcohol and violence were used to coerce the girls – and in both other men were brought in who paid to use the girls for sex.

With almost a year having passed between the two verdicts many will be tempted to ask why lessons were not learned from Rochdale which might have shortened the ordeal of the girls in Oxford.

In fact, for all the similarities, there are a number of key differences between the two cases which, despite the time-lag in the trials, were actually taking place over the same period. The Rochdale abuse was from 2008-9. The Oxford ordeal stretched over eight years from 2004 to 2012.

The greatest difference lay in the motivation of the two groups of abusers, according to Mohammed Shafiq, of the Ramadhan Foundation, a Muslim youth organisation, who was one of the first Asian community leaders to acknowledge that a disproportionate number of the men involved in on-street grooming are British Pakistanis.

“The Rochdale abusers were taxi drivers and takeaway workers using the girls for quick sex. When they took money from other men to have sex with the girls the amounts which changed hands were around £20-30 a time,” says Mr Shafiq. “Oxford is much more to do with money. The men exploiting the girls were charging others £200-£600 a time and bringing 8 to 10 men a day into hotels and restrooms.  It was much more organised.”

That view is echoed by Alyas Karmani, a Muslim imam who is a psychologist with more than 20 years of practical experience in youth and community work – and who works within the Pakistani community in major UK cities to combat attitudes which tolerate or encourage attitudes which lead to sexual violence against women. “It’s important to understand the different pathways in and out of the offending behaviour,” he says since that makes a difference to how they are tackled.

“The ringleader in Rochdale was a serial paedophile but the men in that case were not paedophiles in the classic sense,” he says. “They were not looking for under-age girls; they took the opportunities when they were presented.” The men groomed under-aged girls because they found that easier than persuading an adult woman to have sex.

“Oxford is a more gang-related crime,” says Alyas Karmani. “They were younger men, linked to drug-dealing, money-laundering and financial crime along the M4 corridor. They were making their money from drugs not from pimping out the girls.”

But in the Oxford case the sexual violence was more extreme.  One of the victims described what she had undergone as “torture sex”. Another was told the gang would cut of her head if she did not perform oral sex on them all. One was branded with a hot metal hairpin bent into the initial of the abuser’s name to claim his “ownership” of her. Another was told that, if she was not compliant, her brother would be burnt alive. The detail was so gruesome that the media only published about 10 per cent of what the police uncovered.

“In the Oxford case the humiliation and torturing was much more sadistic,” says Alyas Karmani. That is because, he suggests, the abusers there were significantly younger men than those in Rochdale. “The culture of sexual violence is more prevalent among younger than older men.”

By contrast in the Rochdale case some of the girls were so confused by the nature of their abuse that even during the trial they were still insisting that the men involved loved them, though one victim told the Oxford trial that she believed her abuser loved her and was going to marry her when she was 16.

“It is often difficult to get girls to speak against groomers”, says Louise Ball of Parents Against Sexual Exploitation (PACE UK), former known as CROP. “Grooming drives a wedge between child and parents – and is designed to do that.”

What both cases highlight is the progress which has been made against child sexual exploitation – and the work which is yet to be done.  The Pakistani community, which was so long in denial about the acts committed by a few of its members, has begun to confront the problem. “We can’t refute the statistics that a disproportionate number of those involved drug supply, which links to pimping and prostitution, are British Asian men,” says Alyas Karmani who runs programmes across the UK which he says are getting strong take-up from local communities now.”

The problem he identifies is not confined to young Asian men. “Get a group of young men in a room and they are ambivalent about violence against young women. You hear the sentiment you find in “choke this bitch” lyrics by the likes of Eminem.” It is nothing to do with Muslim culture, he insists, though that culture does have traditions which can help counter such thinking.

Some of his strategies, as an imam, are straightforwardly religious. “That thinking is not compatible with Islam,” he says. But it also trades on the strong family traditions of Asian culture. “ ‘Would you want someone to do that to your sister’, I ask them.” Many of the youths have never had such a conversation with an adult before.

And Muslim community leaders are anxious that their acknowledgement of the problem should not focus disproportionate blame on British Asians. “Child sex abuse happens in all communities,” says Mohammed Shafiq. “The white abusers tend to be loners or do it online, or are friends of the victim’s family. It’s only in on-street grooming that there is an over-representation of Pakistani men – and the media are much more selective in the way they focus on that.”

Police, social workers, academic researchers and children’s charity workers all agree. Greater Manchester Police, in whose area the Rochdale offences took place, says 95 per cent of the men on its sex offenders register are white. Just five per cent are Asian. Wendy Shepherd, child sexual exploitation project manager with Barnardo’s in the north of England, says that most abusers are white and most child sex exploitation happens in the home. White males who are predators on the street tend to work alone, though they also prey in internet grooming rings, she says.

Asians can be the victims too. One Bangladeshi father has recentlyrevealed his daughter is being groomed by a Turkish gang who have been giving her heroin. But it has not been reported. “In the cases which have been given a high profile by the media Asian men have been caught because the group they have operated in is big and blatant,” Alyas Karmani says. “Other groups are more skilled at hiding their activities; they are lone actors, smaller groups of just 2 or 3, and harder to get evidence against.”

But most of the lessons which needed to be learned were among state authorities. “Social workers and police failed to take victims seriously: they said they had made an ‘informed choice’ which was wrong,” says Jim Taylor, who has taken over as chief executive at Rochdale Borough Council in a post child abuse shake-up. “The Council and other agencies missed opportunities to offer assistance.”

In Rochdale, one year on, that learning process is well underway. Disciplinary investigations are being conducted into the culpability of three individuals who have been suspended pending the inquiry. An independent review of processes and procedures has been set up under an outside expert. But even before it reports a number of new measures have been put in place.

“We’ve appointed a brand new leadership team with a wealth of relevant experience,” says Mr Taylor. It is led by Gladys Rhodes White who some years ago set up a pioneering project named Engage to prevent and prosecute child sex abuse in nearby Blackburn. The team has re-examined the files of the 47 victims from the original  cases and two more sets of prosecutions are in the pipeline.

“We’ve directed more funding to Sunrise [Rochdale’s equivalent of Engage], the multi-agency team dedicated to tackling child sexual exploitation,” says Mr Taylor. “We’ve had awareness workshops for 10,000 children in every local secondary school and 1,500 council staff have had face-to-face training. And we have a Child Sexual Exploitation car staffed by police and youth workers patrolling the hotspots on our streets.”

Rochdale social services now have a single point of contact for all referrals of concern on child sex abuse. Local taxi-drivers are more regulated with Criminal Records Bureau checks having been made more consistent. The town now has an accreditation scheme called Safe Rochdale Taxi. There is a monthly forum where police, youth service, youth offending team, social workers and private providers exchange information. A scheme to help police share data across all 10 Manchester boroughs is being investigated, though it is encountering data protection problems. “There’s still a lot to do,” says Jim Taylor, “but we’re improving rapidly”.

There is more to do in the Muslim community. “There’s a disconnect between the elders and the young people,” says Alyas Karmani. It reaches across poor Asian communities in the northern mill towns and comparatively affluent Muslim communities in places like Oxford. “We need better youth programmes but there’s not enough funding to be pro-active,” he laments. “There’s enough work for a fulltime street worker in Bradford, Manchester and Birmingham.”

But Muslims want action in wider society. “There are serious questions to be asked about the behaviour of the owners of the hotels who allowed these men to check in with young girls and then have multiple visitors to their rooms,” says Mohammed Shafiq. “The local authority and the licensing authorities should be asking questions about them.”

Jim Taylor wants to see other changes. A council from another part of the country can send a child in its care to a private children’s home elsewhere, where care is cheaper.  Rochdale has a large number of outsiders in such homes. But those far-away councils can manage the care of that child “by remote” without any duty to inform or liaise with Rochdale social services.

That must change. So must the fact that Ofsted doesn’t have to inform local social services of the results of its inspections of smaller care homes.  But responsibility to stamp out child abuse must go far wider, according to Rochdale’s new child sex exploitation watchdog Gladys Rhodes White.

“I want the message out there to the public,” she says. “If you see something not right like older men with young girls buying drinks and gifts don’t be afraid to report it”.  That responsibility cannot be limited to one community or one set of public officials. It is the job, she says, of us all.  


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