• Thursday, December 01, 2022

HEADLINE STORY

INVESTIGATION: “Pandemic of child abuse”…in south Asian communities

By: Barnie Choudhury

Exclusive

The government, police and councils are failing thousands of south Asian children, some just a few months old, who have been sexually abused, an eleven month Eastern Eye investigation has uncovered.

Using freedom of information requests, we asked 50 councils and 13 police forces how they collate figures for both victims and perpetrators.

We can reveal:

  • all forces and all local authorities we contacted collect data differently, including what to call different ethnic groups.
  • some report it is too time consuming to analyse the figures because of the thousands of victims.
  • shockingly, Eastern Eye has discovered that the Home Office does not expect forces to break down the ethnicity of victims.

A former chief crown prosecutor, an MP, charities and the victims’ commissioner have welcomed our findings and agree that the authorities are letting down victims.

“It is the pandemic that will outlive this pandemic, and it requires the level of action of the government that they belatedly put into the COVID pandemic because it will carry on,” warned a commissioner on the Centre for Social Justice’s (CSJ) child sex abuse inquiry into grooming gangs, Nazir Afzal.

The CSJ report, chaired by former home secretary and chancellor, Sajid Javid, concluded that in this country child sexual abuse “is nothing short of an epidemic”.

“Children and their trust are being abused on an hourly basis,” Afzal told Eastern Eye.

“Somebody somewhere is abusing a child. It horrifies you as much as it horrifies me, as it horrifies anybody who has a sense of morality and a sense of affection for their fellow citizen.”

The former chief prosecutor in the north of England said after the revelation of south Asian paedophile grooming gangs in Rochdale, Oxford and Huddersfield the authorities did start to collect data.

But things appear to have got worse over the past few years because the authorities had “taken their eye off the ball”.

“People become lazy, people become complacent, they think it’s somebody else’s business rather than their own,” said Afzal.

“As a consequence, once again, because I know this from experience, victims do not get the justice they deserve. Unless you know the extent of your problem, you don’t know what resources you need to solve it.

“If you are able to say, well, look, our data says there were hardly any cases last year, then it’s very easy for an authority, police, social services whomever, to say, okay, that means we need to attach three lawyers or three barristers or three police officers.

“Resources follow your data, and if your data is incomplete, then your resources will be incomplete, and that means the victims will not get the service they deserve.”

Proper data collection

The victims’ commissioner, Vera Baird, told Eastern Eye that her office was currently working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) investigating how authorities collate and use data.

Without proper data collection, mapping and analysis, she said, groups which help survivors of child abuse will not be given adequate resources.

“In the light of the connections with Rotherham, where we have strong ideas about what role ethnic characteristics made in how seriously abuse was or was not taken, it seems shocking that the stats are not are not being kept,” Baird said.

This lack of what the commissioner described as “any real spirit of inquiry” into the level of service the authorities provide meant victims were unlikely to come forward to complain about abuse.

“It is, of course, a sort of circle, which goes backwards to discourage people from making reports in the first place.

“They think there won’t be cultural sympathy, they think they’re highly unlikely to get the support, they think there won’t be a prosecution in the end, and so they’ll put themselves through a lot of pain for not very much.

“What is essential is an active attempt to get involved with those communities, so that reassurance could readily be given.”

Karma Nirvana, the national charity which helps victims of forced marriage and honour-based violence, recognises that lack of “active attempt to get involved” by the authorities.

Its chief executive, Natasha Rattu, revealed one recent example.

The police, she said, asked her charity to convince a 15-year-old south Asian victim to complain after she came under pressure from her family to recant her allegations of sexual abuse by a relative.

“We question whether had she not been from a minority community, and had culture not been an issue, would that have been the same response to a white 15-year-old girl making the same disclosures? Absolutely not.” said Rattu.

“They’d be going in there to safeguard and protect that girl. But that protection got slowed down, and the context of this being a 15-year-old girl being sexually abused got lost.

“So, it’s really important that we see this as abuse. There is no explanation within culture to justify, legitimise, abuse. Abuse is abuse, and that would be the message that we would want to send out.”

Failed by authorities

South Asian survivors have told Eastern Eye that they felt that every authority, from local leaders to the criminal justice system, let them down at every turn.

One judge, who wanted to remain anonymous, agreed institutions were failing child abuse victims.

“Allegations of child sexual abuse, without physical evidence of the attack are very unlikely to lead to prosecutions,” they said. “They are same issues broadly as for rape prosecutions. It’s one word against another, and one is a minor.

“For this reason, when social services are notified by a parent or relative that child sexual abuse is suspected, they will look to the non-suspect parent to protect the child by excluding the alleged abuser from the home and deny contact with the child.

“The ‘protective parent’ will be directed to make an application for child arrangements order in the family court.”

Institutions have been accused of failing victims

In some child abuse cases the accuser may not automatically get legal aid or funding from the public purse.

“It is quite common for such a case to be tried with three people in the court. The judge, the parent bringing forward the accusation, and the alleged abuser,” explained the judge.

“Where the accusing party does not qualify for legal help, the alleged abuser does, which makes the exercise precarious.

“In these times police evidence isn’t always available either because the force can’t keep up with requests for statements to be disclosed or because they haven’t made a prosecution decision.

“A psychological or other expert evidence report is very expensive, and the parents may not be able to afford it, and in any event such reports, or a report from the child and family court reporting service, would also only be available after this ‘finding of fact’ stage.”

And the significance of race is often lost on institutions.

Culture of silence

Last year Eastern Eye revealed the culture of silence among south Asian communities, and how so-called community leaders forcefully bury the problem of child sexual abuse.

They put victims under pressure to hide secrets by blaming them for bringing shame and stigma on their communities.

Sukhvinder, not her real name, was sexually abused by a priest in her Sikh temple. It started when she was six and lasted for several years.

She felt ashamed and felt she could not tell anyone what was happening.

Sukhvinder said her abuser sexually harmed both boys and girls, but he escaped because the community never believed priests were capable of paedophilia.

The experience would scar her in later life, especially at the hands of her former husband, who was coercive, violent and an alcoholic.

When Sukhvinder went to the committee of priests, she said they blamed her rather than her abuser.

“He treated me like a bit of used goods,” she told Eastern Eye. “He used to get drunk every weekend, used to beat me up, call me a slapper, rape me, and then say this what I loved because of what happened to me as a child.”

Sukhvinder’s abuser escaped justice (representative image)

When Sukhvinder went to court to get a restraining order, the system did not help her.

“He said to the judge that I was making it all up because as a child I’d been abused, and I was not mentally stable in the head,” she said. “He convinced the court that I thought everyone was abusing me because of what happened to me when I was a child.”

Last year we revealed how social workers felt the police and councils were afraid to tackle child sexual abuse among south Asian communities because they were afraid of being branded racists.

Explosion of cases

Aneeta Prem, founder of the Freedom Charity, which helps children escape forced marriage and abuse, said this was unacceptable.

“When we’re talking about child abuse, race shouldn’t come into it, we should be just looking at protection for young girls and women,” she said.

“So, it is crucially important the ethnicity is recorded, that we know what groups are committing these offences and what type of people are. Being politically sensitive over it doesn’t work.

“We need to be strong, we need to call it out for what it is, and if it offends a group, because they’re the perpetrators, then so be it. Protection is the most important thing.”

During our 11-month investigation we have found that the Home Office has only recently decided to ask police forces to record the ethnicity of perpetrators.

Eastern Eye contacted the Labour MP for Ealing, Southall, Virendra Sharma, who is also the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on honour-based abuse.

He asked the home secretary, through written questions, “what assessment she has made of the potential merits of collecting ethnicity as part of child sexual abuse data?”

The safe-guarding minister, Victoria Atkins, responded that as of the 13 May the police had recorded 90,000 cases of child sexual abuse, a 300 per cent rise since 2013.

“The government is clear that understanding possible drivers of crime is key to developing ways to prevent offending and better support victims,” wrote the minister.

“That is why the home secretary introduced a new requirement for police forces to collect ethnicity data for those arrested and held in custody as a result of their suspected involvement in group-based child sexual exploitation in March 2021.

“Complying with the requirement will be voluntary for one year to allow forces to update their systems, after which it will become mandatory.”

Failing victims

We asked both the home office and education department, which is responsible for child safety, specific questions about sexual abuse among south Asian children.

The home office sent a generic response, which Eastern Eye warned it would not publish. The education department refused to answer, despite an email saying it would respond.

But in the written answer, Atkins failed to answer one crucial question. Was the ethnicity of victims being recorded?

Not always, was the short answer.

“Within some statutory returns West Yorkshire Police do provide details of ethnic appearance although the home office statutory return specifically relating to child sexual abuse requires no details of the victims (sic) ethnicity,” revealed Wayne Horner, detective chief inspector for safeguarding at West Yorkshire Police.

The MP for Ealing, Southall, Virendra Sharma told Eastern Eye that he was “deeply concerned that adequate data is not being collected to protect children”.

“Children from different ethnic groups may need specialised interventions to keep them safe, the same thing doesn’t work for all, and without the data it will be hard to know,” he said.

“We need a clearer picture of who is affected, this data would give that. A unified measure, one replicated across the country would be much safer, and make comparisons easier.

“Some forces could be failing children and their families but hiding behind the limitations of the data we currently have. There is no excuse for these different modes of collection these days.

“I am pleased to have supported your investigation by asking questions of the home secretary, and I will ask her in parliament to make reporting of child abuse data uniform across the country and to make the inclusion of ethnicity mandatory in that data.”

Eastern Eye will be sending all the responses it received from the councils and police forces to the victims’ commissioner to share with the EHRC.

Analysis

Police

What our investigation shows is that neither the police nor councils collect data in a uniform way. That means there are 43 different methods among forces and hundreds among the different local authorities.

But according to Ministry of Justice figures, slightly more Asians than black children were sexually abused over the past decade, 30,532 and 30,346 respectively. But they are dwarfed by the number of white children, at almost 240,000.

These figures raise a question about how the Ministry of Justice records its figures, especially because ethnic monitoring of perpetrators has been voluntary so far.

Further, since no statutory body is compelled by law or Home Office diktat to record the victim’s racial group, it raises the question whether anyone maps or examines possible trends in child sexual abuse.

New measures

In a written response to a question by the Labour MP for Ealing, Southall, the safeguarding minister, Victoria Atkins wrote, “[t]he Home Office will continue to consider data requirements in relation to child sexual abuse, ensuring that all proposals for new data collections are consulted on with the police to ensure that such requests are proportionate, and do not place unnecessary burdens on police forces.

“Additionally the government is constantly striving to better understand the nature of child sexual abuse through the work of the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse, which it established in 2017, and the insight of other experts including the ONS [Office for National Statistics] and the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse, who have produced research on ethnic minority victims of CSEA.”

But here is the rub. Freedom of information responses from several of the forces we questioned showed that a high proportion of children whose ethnic group was either ‘not stated’ or ‘not recorded’.

In Derbyshire in 2020, for example, 88 per cent of cases were ‘not stated’.

That figure was almost one in three according to Greater Manchester Police figures.

If the data in Derbyshire were analysed, apart from the lack of knowing the ethnicity of most victims, it would raise some alarming conclusions, which could affect the targeting of resources.

  • No black children were sexually abused.
  • In the force area, four percent of the population are Asian or Chinese. Yet there were only two south Asians in the entire populations who police investigated after complaints of sexually abuse during 12 months in 2020.
  • Covid and lockdown may have affected a child’s ability to report a crime to a teacher or an adult noticing the signs of sexual abuse.

 

Covid effect?

Our analysis suggests that forces should examine the effect of Covid on a victim’s ability to report a crime.

The figures are very low in Derbyshire, and they may be skewed by the 88 per cent whose ethnicity are not known, but they dropped by half among south Asian children between 2019 and 2020.

The dip in cases is also born out in Nottinghamshire Police’s figures. They show a 67 per cent drop in the number of south Asian victims during those years, and a 75 per cent decrease among black children.

As we have reported previously, organisations such as the Freedom Charity, are warning of “an explosion” of children reporting abuse after the end of lockdown.

“The number of calls has gone up [during the pandemic], people using the Freedom Charity app have gone up, and people are more desperate than they’ve ever been,” reported its founder, Aneeta Prem.

“There were releases. You had people being able to contact their school, finding social workers, there are going to be an explosion of cases when people are allowed to go out and find help.”

That may already have happened in the West Midlands where police figures for south Asian victims climbed from 254 in 2019 to 471 in 2020, an increase of 30 per cent.

Grooming gangs

What the figures for Bedfordshire Police show is that year-on-year the number of victims in these three ethnic groups has increased.

Indeed, between 2018 and 2020, south Asian victim numbers it went up by almost 260 per cent, the highest like-for-like change. Even during the pandemic, it more than doubled.

During the past decade, courts in several towns and cities convicted predominantly south Asian gangs which groomed mainly white teenage girls for sex.

The scandal led to an abuse enquiry led by the former home secretary and chancellor, Sajid Javid.

One of those grooming gangs was in Rotherham, South Yorkshire.

In 2018, the National Crime Agency launched Operation Stovewood after a report concluded that 1,400 children in the town had been sexually abused during 1997 and 2013.

So, people may be concerned to read South Yorkshire Police force’s response to our request for an ethnic breakdown of perpetrators.

“We record on our Connect system offender/suspect details i.e. age, gender and ethnicity etc. Due to how our system records, duplicate records can [be] created for one suspect, as a suspect may be charged with multiple linked offences.

“To retrieve and extract the detail/data you require for suspects, requires drilling down multiple records and cross referencing with investigation paperwork and files to ensure firstly, accuracy and then locate the detail to fit the criteria of your request.

“In essence, each suspect record would have to be reviewed at record level to potentially identify the data required and further review of the investigation/paperwork/ files to locate, retrieve and extract the data.”

Threat to children

The 750 records, said the force, would take more than 37 hours, which is five working days, to analyse manually.

Nazir Afzal, who was a chief prosecutor in the north of England, is neither shocked nor surprised by this revelation.

“My experience tells me the offenders know what’s going on, and if the offenders think that they can get away with it, then they carry on abusing,” he warned.

“If the authorities decide, as they seem to have decided that it’s not that important, then the offenders slip into that gap. And they will identify more victims, and they will harm more victims.”

The National Police Chiefs’ Council told Eastern Eye that forces do ethnically monitor, even though they are not compelled.

“The systems used by police to record crimes vary across the country and there are some inconsistencies in recording the ethnicity of victims,” said their lead for child protection, Chief Constable Simon Bailey.

“We’re working to address this so we can fully understand the threat at a national and regional level and highlight trends across force areas.

“But this doesn’t affect the way we deal with individual offences of child sexual abuse and all cases are thoroughly investigated.

“We will always share information with others to keep a child as safe as possible”

Lancashire Police, where one in 10 is an ethnic minority in the force area, refused our request, but their reason is worrying.

They said, “Lancashire Constabulary introduced a new investigation recording system on 27th November 2018. Data input into the system by officers and staff is currently subject of a quality assurance process, however there is presently a delay between data input and data verification.

“As such recent case information extracted from the system in response to FOI requests may not have undergone the full verification process and may therefore be subject to future change.”

Afzal was not happy when we revealed that some forces could not analyse data.

“It’s a devastating indictment of services whose first responsibility must be to protect the most vulnerable, including children,” he said.

“So, it’s a perfect storm, whereby actively not capturing the extent of the problem, you are putting victims at greater risk.”

No policy

Forces, such as West Yorkshire, said that they do analyse the data.

Detective Chief Inspector Wayne Horner said, “The ethnicity of suspects, victims and witnesses of crime is part of West Yorkshire Police’s crime recording process.

“However, West Yorkshire Police do not have a specific policy document around this. This does not just apply to the recording of sexual offences but all criminal offences.”

What the figures show are that white children make up the highest number of victims. But while white and south Asian children decrease year-on-year, including during Covid, black victims of child sexual abuse are going up.

“Whilst officers are frequently reminded of the importance of recording victims and offenders (sic) ethnicity there are still occasions when details aren’t recorded,” said Horner.

“Circumstances can occur where victims may be unwilling to report their ethnicity or officers have failed to record all the personal characteristics accurately.”

If the Home Office wanted a uniform way of collecting data, it should examine the Metropolitan Police system.

Even though they did not record the ethnicity of 65 per cent of their victims, should detectives want to find out the gender and age as well the community from which they belong, they can.

Councils

Of the 50 councils Eastern Eye contacted, our analysis suggests the concern of campaigners that data is not being collated in a way protects children is well-founded.

Half said they either could not or would not divulge the figures.

Some councils where there is a high south Asian population, such as Derby, admitted they did not break down the ethnicity of victims or perpetrators.

For some councils, analysing the data seemed too much like hard work. Nottingham City Council’s policy is to look for two potential cases of abuse: sexual and neglect.

“In order to answer this part of your request, the children’s social care team have advised they would need to manually trawl through the records of each of the 1,072 children to determine whether or not they were victim of any abuse,” the council responded.

“In addition to this, information may need to be cross referenced with other teams in the council such as the LADO [local authority designated officer]; who has also advised that a manual trawl of records would be required to determine if a child was a victim of sexual abuse.

“At an estimate of five minutes per child, this would equate to over 89 hours of work.

Many refused to give details of victims’ ethnicity for fear they would be identified.”

It raises the question: what price do we put on protecting a child?

Lack of curiosity

Rotherham Council was hit by the scandal of south Asian paedophile grooming gangs, and yet it still does not have a system which can easily identify both the victims and perpetrators.

“We cannot supply a response to this part of your request as this level of detail is not recorded in a manner which can be extracted using reports,” said the FOI response.

This suggests that, despite past mistakes, the council has learnt few lessons. We approached the council for comment, but it refused our requests.

It is the same in neighbouring Barnsley Council.

The problem seems to be the way councils record information, as if child sexual abuse is a one-size-fits-all problem and culture and community play no part in the crime.

Confusing messaging

Barnet Council’s explanation was confusing.

“Barnet do not categorise types of abuse in an extractable format on our recording system, this is included in the detail of each Strategy Discussion and S47 Child Protection Enquiry,” said the response.

A S47 or section 47 is where the council investigates whether a child is being harmed.

“We are able to inform you of the number of s47 processes that were undertaken and the number of children that became subject to a Child Protection Plan under the category of sexual abuse, the latter of which does not equate to the ‘victims’ of abuse or allegations having been made by a child, as it also covers children ‘at risk’ of sexual abuse.”

The council collects the suspect’s ethnicity details, but it is clear that it fails to analyse it.

“We do not hold individual case files on perpetrators of sexual abuse, the details of suspected and alleged abusers are held on children’s individual case files within the detail of their assessments and plans; thus demographic information is not extractable via reporting.

“This information should be requested from the Metropolitan Police and/or Probation Services.”

The Local Government Association (LGA) is adamant that its members do “use data to identify trends and areas of concern relating to child protection, including child sexual abuse, and to inform local plans according to local need”.

But it warned about the need to resource properly what it called “back office functions”.

“Although legislation and tools are in place to support data sharing, many back office functions across safeguarding partnerships have been scaled back due to funding pressures,” said Teresa Heritage, vice chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board.

“The focus has been placed on providing safeguarding support for frontline services and urgent cases, with support for early intervention and preventative services more limited.

“To improve data sharing and analysis, we are calling on the government to ensure long-term, sufficient funding across children’s services and for safeguarding partners, so that both frontline and support functions can be adequately resourced.”

0–4-year-olds abused

Those councils which gave us data showed that south Asian children aged just a few months were being sexually abused.

South Asians believe that child sexual abuse is limited to British-Pakistani communities. What the data shows is that Indians and Bangladeshis living in the UK face the same problem.

“It is pretty self-evident that this is a great disservice to them, and I’m not in a position to probe what attitudes are involved in their lack of interest, the lack of enthusiasm, for getting engaged in these communities,” the victims’ commissioner, Vera Baird told Eastern Eye.

“You are in absolutely the right territory by complaining that this data is not being collected.

“It hints at an attitude of neglect. But definitely it rinses us of the evidence, which could help us to improve our minority communities are helped.”

Sukhvinder’s story

It’s hard to remember what age it began because I’ve blocked it out. But I think I was six or seven years old, and it happened when we went to the temple when one of the priests took advantage. I went with my dad, who was in another room.

First, he’d tell me stories in the main room, then he’d ask us to come to his room, where he said he’d continue to read to me. Then he’d show me pictures of naked men and women and he’d ask me whether I liked them. He asked whether I’d let him take pictures of me like that. I was taken aback, and I knew this was not right. But he’d give me sweets, and he’d hug me and use that as an excuse to grope me.

I couldn’t tell my parents because they trusted him, and I found out he was doing the same thing to other children. When they told their parents, they’d be told how lucky they were that someone so holy was taking time to be kind to them and hugging them.

Once the priest said to me that my dad was calling me, and that’s when he tried to kiss me with his tongue in my mouth. He was groping me touching me. See, my dad wasn’t there, and when it was over he said let me go down first and you come later. He never raped me, but this carried on for years.

Because my dad was quite religious, I couldn’t stop going to the Sikh temple because my dad was the one that you want to go while he couldn’t really tell him why I didn’t want to go. Some boys would tell me how the priest would ask them to touch his penis and say all kinds of sexual stuff to them. We used to think it was funny at the time.

I couldn’t tell anyone what was happening to me because I was embarrassed and ashamed, and I was thinking that my parents wouldn’t believe me, or they would say it was my fault and that I had led him on. He’s passed away now, and the worst thing is, when he passed away, the whole community came out and said he was a saint little knowing what he did to young kids.

Sukhvinder was abused by a priest at her local temple (representative image)

I couldn’t go to the police or the authorities. Why would they believe me, and anyway, I know that there’d be pressure by the whole community on me not to complain because they’d say I’d bring shame on them. To this day, I can’t because I know there’ll be a lot of repercussions and because people look at this man as a saint.

I told everything to my ex-husband. He was an alcoholic, and he was very abusive. He treated me like a bit of used goods. He used to get drunk every weekend, used to beat me up, call me a slapper, rape me, and then say this what I loved because of what happened to me as a child.

If you want a divorce, we go to the senior committee at the temple. I told them what was happening, and they made me swear that I wouldn’t do or say anything. They told to go home and forget about it, and never bring it up again. They were forcing me to stay and said I can’t leave because it’s against the religion and no-one must know about this.

My husband physically and mentally abused me. In the end I left him, but he kept on coming after me, abusing and hitting me and I went to court to get a restraining and molestation order. He said to the judge that I was making it all up because as a child I’d been abused, and I was not mentally stable in the head. He convinced the court that I thought everyone was abusing me because of what happened to me when I was a child. The judge let him question me, and he asked all sorts of horrible things. Why did the judge allow that? The judge decided in his favour, and I felt let down by the authorities again.

You can understand why no-one reports it because it’s such a taboo subject, and there’s not enough support or long-term after care. That’s why people like Karma Nirvana are so important, and that’s why I’m an ambassador for them.

To be honest, the way I look at it is I know a lot of Asian girls have been abused, because it’s one of those things that they’ve kept quiet. You hear a lot about white girls getting abused and this and that. You don’t hear about Asian, but it goes on so much, and it’s people that are part of the family or somebody that’s in authority who look to take the advantage.

I do blame myself a lot. I think I could have stopped it. Maybe I let it go on a bit too long, or too weak person? Is that why it carried me through my life? I just freeze, I don’t know what to do, and I’m gonna have to deal with it, and maybe I’ll never be able to deal with and maybe men can see that vulnerability in me. I don’t know.

Eastern Eye

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