More than a thousand children were sexually exploited over at least 30 years in Telford, with officials turning a blind eye to the abuse and failing to confront perpetrators, an inquiry has concluded.
Obvious evidence of exploitation was ignored by the authorities for decades, the report found, which said unneccessary suffering and even deaths might have been avoided had West Mercia Police (WMP) “done its most basic job” in acting on reports.
Child sexual exploitation (CSE) “thrived” in the Shropshire town and went “unchecked”, it found.
Inquiry chairman, Tom Crowther QC said officials were nervous that investigating would “inflame racial tensions”.
The inquiry was launched after a 2018 Sunday Mirror investigation found that around 1,000 children could have been sexually exploited in the town since the 1980s.
Mr Crowther said: “The overwhelming theme of the evidence has been the appalling suffering of generations of children caused by the utter cruelty of those who committed child sexual exploitation.
“Victims and survivors repeatedly told the inquiry how, when they were children, adult men worked to gain their trust before ruthlessly betraying that trust, treating them as sexual objects or commodities.
“Countless children were sexually assaulted and raped. They were deliberately humiliated and degraded. They were shared and trafficked. They were subjected to violence and their families were threatened.
“They lived in fear and their lives were forever changed.”
He said police and council officials were aware of the abuse but failed to act, emboldening offenders and failing at-risk children.
He said: “So far as both the council and WMP were concerned, a number of features appear to have contributed to this shocking failure to address CSE: a focus upon abuse within the family, at the expense of extra-familial exploitation; over-caution about acting in the absence of ‘hard evidence’ – a formal complaint from a child – about exploitation; and a nervousness that investigating concerns against Asian men, in particular, would inflame racial tensions.”
Mr Crowther said West Mercia Police turned “a blind eye and chose not to see what was obvious”.
He added: “It is impossible not to wonder how different the lives of those early 2000s victims of child sexual exploitation – and indeed many others unknown to this inquiry – may have been had WMP done its most basic job and acted upon these reports of crime.
“It is also impossible in my view, not to conclude that there was a real chance that unnecessary suffering and even deaths of children may have been avoided.”
The inquiry chairman also criticised a generation of Telford politicians for not regarding a child sexual exploitation response as an “essential service” in the period before 2016.
Mr Crowther also found:
– Information was not properly shared between agencies, with some bodies dismissing child exploitation as “child prostitution” and even blaming the children instead of the perpetrators.
– Teachers and youth workers were “discouraged from reporting child sexual exploitation”.
– Offenders were “emboldened” and exploitation “continued for years without concerted response”.
– That police and Telford & Wrekin Council scaled down specialist teams to “virtual zero – to save money”.
Both West Mercia Police and the council issued apologies on Tuesday to the victims for their failings over years to tackle the abuse.
Seven men were jailed in 2013 following Operation Chalice, a police probe into child sex abuse cases in the Telford area.
In 2019, one of the seven prosecuted six years earlier was jailed alongside three other men for abusing a “helpless” young girl who was “passed around like a piece of meat”, sold for sex and raped.
The victim, aged just 13 when the abuse began in 2001, told how she was forced to perform sex acts in a churchyard, raped above a shop on a filthy mattress, and violently abused when she tried to refuse their advances.
The inquiry, which began in 2019, looked at allegations from 1989 to the present day.
However, Mr Crowther said he had also spoken to victims whose experiences dated back to the 1970s.
He warned the "dreadful, life-altering crime” has not gone away and that officials must be vigilant in ensuring children are protected.
Assistant Chief Constable Richard Cooper said: "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."
The council said it was working "very hard" to provide "the best possible support for victims of this crime" and accepted the inquiry's recommendations.