Many people in Telford knew something about the stories of child sexual exploitation in their community. For years, they’d read local news reports about it, they’d seen arrests – some even thought they might have witnessed grooming happening in front of them.
But the revelations this week that the Shropshire town could be at the heart of the UK’s largest ever child sexual exploitation scandal, with up to 1,000 children estimated to have fallen victim to abuse since the 1980s, has caused devastation on a new scale, and has revealed simmering anger about how the authorities have dealt with the problem.
Grooming gangs have long-dominated local headlines, especially since Operation Chalice, a 2009 police inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Telford in which seven men were jailed for multiple crimes, including sexually abusing teenagers as young as 13.
Looking back, Josh Baker, 27, a property manager, thinks he may have even seen grooming going on outside a college in Wellington, an area of Telford near where two brothers, Ahdel Ali and Mubarek Ali, used to live. Both were convicted of rape and child sex offences in 2012.
“Maybe it was less obvious to me then,” Josh said. “I had my suspicions, however once the guilty parties were displayed in the papers, it all seemed to make sense.”
When I visited the town this week, the message from residents was clear: they believe the authorities simply haven’t done enough to protect victims. Sian*, 26, said the full scale of the revelations had made her feel “sick and worried” for her young daughter. “It’s scary to live in such a horrible town, with this going on right under our noses.
“I actually know one of the ladies involved in the grooming. I don’t think enough has or is being done about it. Proper action needs to be taking place enabling people to come forward and know that they aren’t in the wrong.”
Many of the victims have been young, white working-class girls. An internal police memo seen by the Sunday Mirror, who broke the story a week ago, reportedly said “in most cases the sex is consensual”, which specialist child abuse lawyer Dino Nocivelli branded as “victim blaming at its worst”. Some victims are alleged to have been as young as 11.
Whole families have been stigmatised by their proximity to the scandal. Vicky*, 26, said she knew one of the men involved in the abuse. “I’m friends with his sister. Because it was one of her brothers, other people blamed her and her family - you all get tarred with the same brush.”
West Mercia police said they are currently working with 46 people who are at risk of sexual exploitation. The CATE project (Children at Risk through Exploitation) said since April 2016 it has received 2,000 enquiries for assistance over exploitation issues. The BBC reported that in 2016 youth workers were unable to keep appointments with vulnerable girls due to facing “almost double” the recommended caseload.
One more complex way the fury over child victimisation has manifested itself in Telford, is in the heightening of racial tensions. All seven of the men jailed over child abuse are British-Asians, which has bred an uncomfortable feeling among locals that the police didn’t take action against them for fear of appearing racist.
It’s a clear echo of the concerns around policing in Rotherham and Rochdale, also hit by large sexual exploitation scandals. In the former, it’s thought at least 1,400 children were sexually exploited. A National Crime Agency investigation identified 110 suspects, 80% of whom are of Pakistani heritage. In Rochdale, the nine men convicted for grooming were also Asian.
Douglas, 23, who did not give his full name, said he thought the authorities had “handled it in their own selfish means”. He said, bluntly: “The only reason they didn’t stop these crimes in the first place is because they’re terrified of being slandered racists. If they don’t stop these things happening, it’s only going to get worse.”
A controversial study by The Quilliam Foundation published in 2017 found that 84% of people convicted since 2005 for so-called “gang grooming” have been south Asian. In Telford, and in other towns rocked by similar scandals, tensions between ethnic groups have intensified, and innocent members of the Asian community have been attacked.
Baker said as a result he feared an “uprising of politically-motivated groups in the town such as the EDL [English Defence League]”. Telford has in the past been a marching ground for far-right groups such as the EDL and Britain First, and 41-year-old Azhar* has witnessed their prejudice first-hand.
“Last year I was working in my shop and had a customer in, when six or seven people came in and said I had an Isis sign on my board,” he said. “But the sign has nothing to do with Isis. They started being abusive. They said I had to leave the UK saying ‘it’s a Christian country’. They threatened to smash my displays and burn the shop.
“Their leader stood outside and said we were associated with Isis. Two days later a video of him outside our shop was shared by thousands of people and we started getting abuse.”
Azhar condemned the behaviour of grooming gangs and pointed out that “bad people can be in any community”. The 41-year-old is now worried about his family and children, as he fears a racial backlash. “Someone came in yesterday and threw things off the stand,” he continued. “My business partner was born and bred here, graduated from university, he was doing so well but because of all this he’s migrated to Pakistan.”
Azhar is completing a degree in chartered accountancy in Wolverhampton, but said he’s considering leaving the country when he has graduated to protect his family.
The editor of Telford Live, Andy, who preferred not to give his surname, said there was a demo scheduled for 24 March to show solidarity with survivors, however it was cancelled following talks with the police. “Most people think marches are the way to do it, but it doesn’t change anything,” he said. “The problem is, when something like this rears its head again, it stirs up people who are blatant racists. It’s no good.”
He has worked hard to paint a positive picture of Telford in the past few years, but he says there is currently “a shadow cast over the town”. The general feeling is that the people of Telford want to do something, but they don’t know what, or how.
Lucy Allan, Telford’s MP, revealed to the BBC that since appearing in parliament calling for an independent inquiry she’s been “inundated” with messages from people who say they’ve been affected by exploitation and abuse.
During my visit, three people I spoke to said they knew someone who had been directly affected by sexual exploitation – and others had concerns for people they knew, but didn’t want to go into detail. Marianne*, 69, said: “I was disgusted when I heard about what’s been happening. And knowing somebody that it’s happened to as well - they [the perpetrators] terrorised the house because her mother wouldn’t let her out, she was 13 - it’s frightening when you think of it.”
So what next? Residents worry that the public inquiry may take too long to happen. Allan told HuffPost UK: “It’s imperative that the independent inquiry gets underway as soon as possible. All parties have agreed that this is the best way forward.
“I will be encouraging the authorities in Telford to look closely at the Rotherham style model of an independent inquiry and will suggest officers from Telford meet Rotherham officers to understand how that inquiry operated and why it was successful.”
Telford and Wrekin council said the way forward is for a government-commissioned independent inquiry, as one commissioned by local agencies like the council or police “could be seen as not being impartial”. The Home Office said there will not be a separate inquiry into the Telford abuse scandal because there is already a national investigation underway.
Councillor Shaun Davies said the authorities had “been transparent throughout”. He added: “We have been inspected by Ofsted on this issue and been visited by the Home Office and Dept of Education. However, I feel we must do everything possible to know and learn further from what happened in the period before Operation Chalice jailed seven men for vile crimes against children.
“I accept and regret that some historic practices were not effective and some of the incidents referred to in recent media reports pre-date the council.”
But for the residents, for whom this story has become woven into everyday life, the greatest concern is that official failings might mean that similar scandals are happening away in other towns and cities, too.
Paul James, 45, who works in an opticians, said: “Telford is a new town that’s growing, it’s only 50 years old, it’s going to have problems and the issues that it has had are similar to so many other towns. This is not a ‘Telford problem’.
“It’s so much bigger than Telford.”
*Surnames have been removed to protect identities.
HuffPost UK reached out to West Mercia police for comment and is waiting to hear back.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.