Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Dr Alan Billings, admitted nothing was done about the “very entrenched” child sex exploitation in his region following the first warnings over 10 years ago because the girls were then seen as child prostitutes not victims. Commissioner Billings said:
“I don’t think any of us at that time understood what grooming was and that this was grooming. I think we saw these girls not as victims but as troublesome young people out of control and willing participants. We saw it as child prostitution rather than child abuse, and I think that was broadly accepted and that’s why it all went wrong.”
Further clarification of the issue is now possible following the publication of two secret South Yorkshire Police reports from 2003 and 2006. The reports, made available following a Freedom of Information request by the Sheffield Star , show the extent of the warnings the police were given. Written by drugs analyst Dr Angie Heal, the documents set out links between drugs and violence and named exploiters but did not lead to action being taken at the time.
The 2006 report showed abusers were able to carry on with “impunity” across South Yorkshire and particularly in Sheffield and Rotherham. Dr Heal said she was once told by a senior officer that “it was awful but burglary and car crime were policing priorities set by the government.”
Commissioner Billings has promised Dr Heal’s findings will be looked at as part of the independent inquiry into South Yorkshire Police’s handling of child sexual exploitation. He set up the inquiry in March this year following a BBC investigation which revealed that the the police had details of more than 320 suspected abusers in Sheffield between 2007 and 2010 but failed to act.
Expressing her frustration at historic inactivity Dr Heal continued:
“I just feel so upset and very, very angry – the abuse could have been stopped. I feel for the victims and families and frontline staff that tried their best in such horrendous circumstances. There are just so many people affected by this.”
South Yorkshire Police have conceded that there were failings in the way it handled child sexual exploitation in the past but that progress has now been made including a significant increase in the number of police officers and staff dedicated to tackling child sexual exploitation. A police spokeswoman said there is now an absolute commitment “to achieving justice, stopping the harm and preventing future offending.”