AUTHORITIES in County Durham say they will work even harder to protect children and bring abusers to justice after a scathing report found ‘extensive failures’ in the way child sexual exploitation is tackled.

Durham Constabulary and Durham County Council were responding to a report from The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) which features harrowing testimonies from more than 30 children who have been sexually exploited by criminal gangs – including in County Durham.

The inquiry heard evidence from child victims in six areas of the country – some of whom reported being raped, abused, and in one case forced to perform sex acts on a group of 23 men while held at gunpoint.

The IICSA found those youngsters were often “victim blamed” by authorities for the ordeals they suffered while some were even slapped with criminal records for offences closely linked to their sexual exploitation.

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The report, published this week, found “extensive failures” in the way child sexual exploitation by criminal gangs is tackled, with police and authorities potentially downplaying the scale of abuse over concerns about negative publicity.

The IICSA concluded this might be down to a determination to assure they are not seen as “another Rochdale or Rotherham” – towns blighted by recent child sexual exploitation revelations – rather than a desire to “root out … and expose its scale”.

In Durham 403 cases of possible child sexual exploitation were flagged by police officers or staff in 2019.

But the police and local safeguarding partnership accepted “we could be underestimating” the extent of child sexual exploitation, with some cases classed as child sexual abuse rather than exploitation.

Some children were also being ‘missed’ from classification as victims or at risk of child sexual exploitation in the county because of a failure to understand the concept of consent.

The report said that findings and recommendations from external inspectorates can act as a catalyst for improvement, if they offer accurate and detailed feedback.

In September 2019 Ofsted said aspects of Durham County Council’s children’s social care required improvement and a March 2020 HMICFRS inspection criticised Durham Constabulary’s response to missing children.

Both the council and police, with partner agencies, had responded positively to those reports.

Aspects of good practice in the county were highlighted, such as joint working by council-commissioned sexual health, school nursing and substance misuse services.

A Durham Constabulary spokesman said: “Our officers and staff work incredibly hard to protect young people from harm and bring perpetrators of child sexual exploitation to justice.

“But we know that there is always more that can be done and the inquiry has highlighted those areas where we could improve further.

“We will learn from the report and its recommendations to ensure we do all we can to protect children from exploitation and that our officers are empathetic, respectful and use appropriate terminology.

“Survivors of abuse need to know that they are never responsible for what has happened to them - responsibility lies solely with the perpetrator.

“Every child deserves to be safe and cared for within our communities. If anyone has concerns about the exploitation of children, we would urge them to contact us in confidence and be assured we will take effective action.”

John Pearce, Durham County Council’s director of children and young people’s services, said: “We fully recognise the impact of child sexual exploitation on children and young people. The case studies included in the inquiry provide a clear picture of the harm those affected have experienced.

“We have acknowledged throughout the inquiry that we haven’t always got everything right in the past, but we continue to strive to build on the improvements we have made in recent years.

“The report highlights a number of examples of good practice and improvement in County Durham, and we are pleased this has been recognised.

“We welcome the opportunity to contribute to the IICSA process and the ongoing national learning in relation to child sexual exploitation.

“We will now take some time to look at the finer details of the report and consider where further improvements to our processes could be made, in order to ensure we are providing the highest quality of service to protect and support our children and young people.”

Professor Alexis Jay, who chaired the inquiry, said: “The sexual exploitation of children by networks is not a rare phenomenon confined to a small number of areas with high-profile criminal cases.

“We found extensive failures by local authorities and police forces in the ways in which they tackled this sexual abuse.

“There appeared to be a flawed assumption that child sexual exploitation was on the wane, however it has become even more of a hidden problem and increasingly underestimated.”

The inquiry team said there was evidence of child sexual exploitation by networks in all six areas examined - Bristol, Durham, St Helens, Swansea, Tower Hamlets and Warwickshire - but that the relevant police forces were “generally not able to provide any evidence about these networks”.

Victims, many of whom had a history of self-harm and running away from home, repeatedly described how their allegations against their perpetrators were routinely dismissed by police.

In some cases, children were even landed with criminal records.

Mr O’Brien said a “culture shift” was required, adding: “All organisations in this need to see the victim in this, not the crime.”

The report, the 18th from the IICSA since it was established, said: “The prospect of receiving a criminal conviction may deter children from disclosing child sexual exploitation, and indeed may serve to increase the hold that perpetrators have over their victims.

“The focus should be on investigating the criminal conduct of sexual exploitation, not sanctioning children for what is frequently low-level antisocial behaviour.”

The report said senior leaders within local authorities and police forces must take the lead on “eradicating attitudes and behaviours which suggest that children who are victims of exploitation are in some way responsible for it”.

It identified a number of recommendations including a requirement for police forces and local authorities to collect specific data on all cases of known or suspected child sexual exploitation, including by criminal gangs and organised networks.

The final overarching IICSA report, taking in all 19 strands of the inquiry such as investigations into abuse in Westminster and the church, is expected to be laid before Parliament later this year.


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