1,000 children groomed but unease about race meant Telford sexual exploitation ignored, inquiry finds

·5-min read

More than 1,000 children have been groomed in Telford, with obvious child sexual exploitation ignored by the authorities, an independent inquiry has found.

Key agencies dismissed child exploitation as "child prostitution" and blamed children, not the perpetrators.

The report has also concluded that exploitation was not investigated because of nervousness about race.

Teachers and youth workers were discouraged from reporting child exploitation and offenders were emboldened, with exploitation continuing for years.

The Independent Inquiry into Telford Child Exploitation has been investigating widespread grooming in the town from 1989 to the present day.

It found the men would meet girls, either in the street or in their role as taxi drivers or food delivery drivers, and persuade them to be their "girlfriend".

They would give the children lifts, buy alcohol and cigarettes for them and then persuade them to engage in sexual activity. Children were led to believe this was normal behaviour.

Violence and the threat of violence were common.

Girls would be driven to remote locations at night and threatened with abandonment unless they engaged in sexual activity. Gang rape was not unusual.

'Racism' fears because Asian men were involved

The report considered evidence from survivors who believe West Mercia Police failed to take proper action in some investigations in order to avoid being labelled racist, or because the involvement of Asian men meant that to investigate would potentially attract negative headlines.

It concludes that in the 1990s and early 2000s - and even beyond - the force allowed a nervousness about race to become prevalent among officers, and that this led to a reluctance to police parts of Wellington, in particular.

The report found that the murder of Lucy Lowe was used by perpetrators as an ongoing threat to other children.

Lucy died when she was 16, when her abuser set fire to her home. Her mother and sister were also killed in the blaze

Taxi driver Azhar Ali Mehmood was jailed in 2001 for their murders but was never prosecuted for sex offences.

Lucy had given birth to his child aged just 14. She was pregnant at the time of her death.

The inquiry heard evidence that Lucy's murder was well known in one particular school and meant children were intimidated against making complaints.

A witness from the school told the investigation team girls "were all clamming up big time because… Lucy had lost her life. And they knew".

The report found that child sexual exploitation thrived unchecked in Telford for decades. It was not hidden and key agencies were aware of it in detail.

In the 1990s people working with children, including police officers, youth workers and teachers, expressed concern about repeated episodes of children going missing but those concerns were not taken sufficiently seriously by the council or West Mercia Police.

The report makes a series of recommendations for improvement.

'We were judged as being promiscuous'

Holly Archer, not her real name, who was abused from the age of 14 and fought for the inquiry, said: "Social services let me down, the mental health team, children's mental health service - they let me down.

"My GP surgery, the police - because they would see us on the street and just drive past in the middle of the night and not even say anything.

"So actually I think everybody who had a duty of care dismissed themselves of that responsibility for the whole of that time in my life.

"They could have asked me what was happening, and it could have been just something as simple as that, and nobody asked me.

"Lessons I'd like to be learned out of that is that everybody has a little bit of professional curiosity, whether or not it's their responsibility. Everybody's job is to protect children.

"We were judged as being promiscuous or making those choices ourselves.

"When they say they're going to implement the recommendations from the report I want them to implement all the recommendations from the report and I want them to be done properly."

'It was unacceptable, we let you down' - police

In response to the report, West Mercia Police issued an "unequivocal apology to victims and survivors... for past failings by the force".

Assistant Chief Constable Richard Cooper said: "I would like to say sorry. Sorry to the survivors and all those affected by child sexual exploitation in Telford.

"While there were no findings of corruption, our actions fell far short of the help and protection you should have had from us, it was unacceptable, we let you down.

"It is important we now take time to reflect critically and carefully on the context of the report and the recommendations that have been made."

He said the force had made "vast improvements" and now has teams dedicated to preventing and tackling child exploitation.

"We want people who are, or think they are, being exploited or are concerned about child sexual exploitation to report this to us. We will listen and we will act on any information given to us," said Mr Cooper.

Telford & Wrekin Council also apologised "wholeheartedly to victims and survivors for the pain they have gone through" and called child sexual exploitation a "vile crime".

It said the inquiry had noted it had made "significant improvements in recent years" and said it was already carrying out many of the report's recommendations.

A government spokesperson called the abuse in Telford "appalling" and said children were let down across the board.

"Public bodies, their leaders, and frontline professionals must be unafraid of confronting criminality, including child abuse, no matter the race, ethnicity, religion, or other characteristics of perpetrators or their victims," a statement said.

"We welcome the recognition in today's report that those services have improved. But we are determined that previous mistakes must never be repeated and we will not hesitate to take further national action if required."

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