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EXCLUSIVE: ‘Break the code of silence’ – police failing Asian victims of child sex abuse, say activists

By Barnie Choudhury

SOUTH ASIAN children who have been sexually abused are being let down by police not being thorough in their investigation and having a “poor” grasp of the trauma that victims experience, campaigners said.

Eastern Eye can also reveal that a women’s group has this week launched a ‘super complaint’ against the Home Office over the way forces handle such cases.

Campaigners and charities are concerned about the extent of abuse taking place among south Asian communities since lockdown was imposed in March to stop the spread of coronavirus. Calls to helplines have dropped compared to last year, and some women’s groups fear cases will spike once restrictions ease and children are back in school.

This week, the Middlesbrough-based Halo Project, which supports victims of honour-based violence, forced marriage and child sexual abuse, put in its super complaint, meant to force authorities to examine and rectify deep seated and systemic national problems which cannot be solved locally.

The group is being helped by former chief prosecutor, Nazir Afzal. He said, “The police have perceptions, prejudices. They don’t get that the families may be complicit in the sexual abuse. Victims don’t have support in place, they are often treated with scepticism, and they aren’t taken seriously when they complain. The whole system continues to fail them.”

Nazir Afzal

Sabah Kaiser, an ambassador for the ongoing independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, told Eastern Eye that when she finally complained to the police, they did not believe that she had been sexually molested and raped by her uncles over several years.

“One of the female officers asked, ‘Did he have intercourse [with you]?’ I was a 13-year-old child. I did not know the word intercourse, so I repeated the word and said, ‘What does this word mean?’ I couldn’t even pronounce it. The officer who asked the question stood up and said, ‘If you don’t know what that word means, then it didn’t happen.’”

In documents seen by Eastern Eye, the Halo Project complains that the police “have a poor understanding of the victims’ trauma”, and “officers have often mistakenly believed that the family or community will stand by and support the victims of sexual abuse, when the risk profile of further harm has actually increased several times over.”

An investigation for Eastern Eye has found that neither the Home Office nor the police and social services has a national database of figures or who is committing abuse. This means authorities cannot provide a UK-wide picture of the extent of the problem.

Furthermore, they do not have a country-wide record which breaks down the figures according to ethnicity, so they will not know what is happening in different communities.

The National Police Chiefs Council told Eastern Eye, “We are not an organisation with an operational mandate, therefore each force will have to account for their figures.”

Some charities are concerned that during lockdown, vulnerable children have had to suffer in silence, because they could not turn to anyone outside their extended family and close-knit communities.

“We won’t know the true extent of the damage that’s taken place during lockdown until we’ve got to some sort of normal state,” said executive director of Karma Nirvana, Natasha Rattu.

“We’ve obviously got the big holidays coming up as well. The holidays for us are already a time when these crimes will be hidden.”

Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that 3.1 million people aged between 18 and 74 had been sexually abused before they were 16, that is 7.5 per cent in that age range. In March 2019, police forces in England and Wales recorded 73,260 child sexual offences, but these are not broken down by ethnicity.

“I’m surprised they haven’t collected statistics,” said Aneeta Prem, founder and president of the Freedom Charity. “Unless you have the whole picture of what’s going on, how are you going to be able to tackle the whole problem? How can you make changes? So, there needs to be a central database where it’s recorded correctly.”

Karma Nirvana told Eastern Eye that it has supported 43 children who were 17 or under during the lockdown so far (until 26 June 26). Of these, eight children or 19 per cent said they had been sexually abused. The victims are from all south Asian communities and one is Romanian.

Rattu said, “Without a shadow of a doubt, it’s more hidden because we’ve not had anywhere near the number of children contacting us during lockdown compared to prelockdown. We’ve not had as many teachers as we would expect making contact with our service. That’s massively worrying.”

In the same period last year, Karma Nirvana helped 67 children, nine of whom suffered sexual abuse. This 37 per cent drop concerns Rattu, and so does the way in which some police forces investigate sex abuse cases in south Asian communities.

Karma Nirvana helped 67 children, nine of whom suffered sexual abuse.

In one recent case, officers asked for the charity’s help to persuade a teenage girl to open up to them after a team went to her home on a Friday to take a statement.

However, the police had not considered the pressure her stepfather and mother would put on the child over that weekend to retract her complaint. And the problems did not stop there.

“We agreed for one of our advocacy workers to go and meet with the child,” explained Rattu. “She’s a white British colleague, and the officer said, ‘Could we have somebody that’s from this girl’s community, an Asian female?’ You don’t need somebody who is Asian, female or from that person’s community to spell out to the child that sexual abuse is wrong.”

This approach to investigating abuse in BAME communities is reinforced in a new report from the current independent inquiry into child sexual abuse. Called People don’t talk about it – Child sexual abuse in ethnic minority communities, it concludes:

“Cultural stereotypes and racism can lead to failures on the part of institutions and professionals to identify and respond appropriately to child sexual abuse. They can also make it more difficult for individuals in ethnic minority communities to disclose and speak up about child sexual abuse.”

And it adds that “some professionals only see a person’s ethnic group rather than the whole person”.

Kaiser, an ambassador for the inquiry, told Eastern Eye that her uncle first raped her when she was nine, but sexual molestation started when she was seven. She would continue to be abused by three other uncles until she reported it at the age of 13.

But when she complained she was not believed. Kaiser said the signs of abuse were obvious, such as “acting out” and challenging older children at her school to fights, but the signals were not picked up.

“I was labelled as being beyond parental control – it says so in my social services file, which I obtained a few years ago. It clearly states that ‘she’s rebelling against her culture, beyond control’, and that’s why I was put into care when I was about 14.”

One social worker who has been working in child protection among south Asian communities for three decades told Eastern Eye that little had changed during that time.

“What social workers should be taught, right at the outset, is to be open to the possibility of sexual abuse among all communities, therefore seeing the obvious signs. Please listen to the child, look at their behaviour in the context of a full assessment. It’s not rocket science.

“Social workers don’t think, and they don’t ask the right questions. They simply cannot believe that it’s happening among Asian people, and when they are told by ‘community leaders’ that there is nothing to see there, they move on and don’t investigate properly.”

Eastern Eye has been told that south Asians are wrong to think that child sexual abuse is just happening in Pakistani communities or among Muslims. The paper has seen figures which show that it is taking place among Indian and Bangladeshi communities as well.

“It crosses cultures, it crosses religion, it crosses class. People don’t want to look at what’s happening right under their noses,” said Prem. “Girls are having reconstructive surgery after they have been raped, so people wouldn’t know they had been raped.”

The child sex abuse inquiry report also revealed that a ‘code of silence’ exists among BAME communities, which is being made worse by community gatekeepers to whom the authorities often turn to and rely on for access.

“They’re now in powerful positions,” said the child protection officer. “They are councillors, business leaders and influencers who barge into the offices of social service bosses and accuse them of being racist, so they’re scared of a scandal.

“Then you have those who whisper into the ears of the police that it’s all rubbish. So, everything is being brushed under the carpet, and we’re still seeing this happening time and time again.”

A spokesman for the British Association of Social Workers, the union and membership body for social workers, said it did not collect data about child sexual abuse. Its chair, Gerry Nosowska said, “Social work as a profession needs to understand how better to support children and young people from BAME communities to get the protection and help they need, and social workers must be supported to challenge and overcome barriers.”

The profession’s regulator, Social Work England, which was formed in December 2019, has expressed concerns over the lack of high-quality data.

Chief executive, Colum Conway said, “We are keen to ensure that ethnicity is not an afterthought. It is our core business, a foundation of which is the collection, analysis, monitoring and dissemination of data. No one should ever feel let down, ignored or betrayed by the professionals and institutions which exist to support them at their greatest hour of need.”

Campaigners are demanding an end to the silence among south Asian communities and the proper collection of data.

“In other criminal investigations, the police actively look for several lines of inquiries,” Afzal said. “But in child sex abuse, they concentrate on the family and so they miss opportunities.

“If they don’t listen to the victims and those who support them, they won’t get a real picture of the barriers the victims are facing.”

A senior police source told Eastern Eye that data collection was “a big issue for police forces”. One big challenge, they said, was that forces had to collect data for their ‘annual data requirement’ or ADR. Every time the requirements are changed, it causes problems for the service with some forces being unable to do what is requested.

But Eastern Eye understands that there is little consistency in what data is being collected and what is being used for ‘intelligence purposes’.

“Being asked to collect data in a certain way takes time, is a huge human resource, and that costs money,” the source said. “Expect forces to push back against a national data base.”

The Department of Education told Eastern Eye that the Home Office was responsible for tackling child sexual abuse.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Home Office said, “The government is committed to ensuring that all victims and survivors receive the support they need. We will be publishing a national child sexual abuse strategy which aims to ensure that this crime is identified and prevented across all communities.”

But Afzal rejects the idea that yet another strategy is needed.

“They can have all the strategies they want, but it’s not what’s on paper that counts, it’s the reality victims experience. This needs a national response. It’s the proper identification of all the barriers, proper understanding of the solutions and their proper implementation. You can’t measure what you don’t see.”