Last week, the issue of the grooming and sexual abuse of girls in Rochdale and other northern towns was in the news again, as a report by the Rochdale Borough Safeguarding Children Board was published which firmly criticised local police, social services and prosecutors for failing to protect the girls, mostly in their early teens or even younger, from being abused by gangs of Asian men of Muslim origin. The Daily Mail took the opportunity to cast this as primarily a racial issue, criticising some charities for refusing to distinguish between white child abusers and Asian ones, and giving prominence to Jack Straw’s comments that the “issue of ethnicity” was significant: that the Asian community was closely-knit and people must have known what was going on. The Mail, as ever, blamed political correctness and the authorities’ unwillingness to antagonise the local Asian community or be accused of racism. What really stands out, however, is their own class prejudice.
Straw, it must be remembered, has a grudge against sections of the Muslim community, because he caused some of us a lot of distress with his comments about asking Muslim women who come to his constituency surgery to remove their face-coverings, if they wear them. This turned into a media witch-hunt against veil-wearing women in general and led to a spate of incidents in which colleges, apparently emboldened by the hostile climate being fostered in the press, started banning niqaab on the premises despite the garment apparently not having been the cause of any problems in the past: it was now acceptable to openly not like it. He also faced an attempt to get him ousted from his Parliamentary seat by Muslims from out of town who objected to his support for the Labour government’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Although local (mostly Gujarati) Muslims voted for him, there was also substantial Muslim hostility and so it might be suspected that he had something of a grudge:
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, he said: “There is an issue of ethnicity here which can’t be ignored.
“It is true that if you go into the sex offenders wings of prisons there are proportionally more white men than Asian men. But there’s also the separate issue of group grooming in the Asian community.
“In terms of group grooming, there is an ethnic dimension to this which is Asian men and white girls, and that has to be faced by the Asian community.
“These are small communities, and people would have an idea that there are groups of men that are abusing girls in this way, and that has to be faced.”
He made the usual observations about the men seeking sexual satisfaction from “white girls” because they were “popping with testosterone” yet expected to marry a girl from Pakistan. I find this link somewhat tenuous: the men doing the abuse (as opposed to simply being used to lure the girls) were older men who would have plenty of other avenues in which to seek sexual satisfaction, and those who are this way inclined are hardly going to be constrained by religious scruples about sexual purity. The same rules affect most men of Pakistani background, and the number who are involved in these gangs are pretty small — only nine were convicted in the case this report is concerned with.
He surmises that people in the Asian community would have been aware of what was going on, but what did he expect they would do? The Asian community do not control social services and certainly not the police, who knew about the problem and, as this report made clear, did not act because those in authority believed that the girls had chosen this lifestyle, despite often being well below the age of consent and even below 13 (sex with someone under that age is regarded as rape). It has been established that girls approached the police (one of them was arrested in a disturbance in which she loudly accused an Asian chef of being a paedophile) and that an officer was recorded yawning as a girl described the abuse she had been suffering. What ordinary Asians, who were not in on the act, saw with these young girls hanging around kebab shops and riding around with young Asian men, is not clear — seeing them hanging around does not always mean anything untoward is happening, let alone rape — but even if a number of Asians had complained, they would have complained to the same people who regarded the girls as prostitutes and yawned at their stories. They were the gatekeepers; the other Asians were not.
Many of the children were in care; the social services were responsible for the upkeep of most of them and that includes making sure they do not fall into this kind of trap. One of them reported that her mother had put her into care voluntarily because she was unable to keep her safe from them, and yet the abuse escalated when she was placed in a local children’s home. I know people who have been in the care system, including two mothers who have, or have had, children in care; it is awfully distressing to be parted from your child, but they should have the comfort that their children are being cared for at least as well as they could do themselves. It is all too easy to blame the front-line workers for this scandal (as happened after the Victoria Climbié case) or to simply sack a local social services chief (as after the Baby P case), when much wider factors contributed to this: the law which bans children’s homes from physically preventing children from leaving unless they are licensed secure homes (of which there are very few and many have been closed down as they are too costly), the concentration of children’s home provision in run-down northern towns like Rochdale, where there is a ready supply of cheap, large houses. The problem with physical security is that if you confine someone to an institutional home, you risk trapping them with their abusers whether they are adults or their peers, which may well explain why the only children’s homes that still do that are the very specialised, intensively supervised secure homes like the one featured in a three-part BBC Three documentary last year (and juvenile prisons, where their welfare is for some reason seen as much less important, hence the high death and suicide rate). Still, it does not make sense to let vulnerable children wander into the arms of abusers who are known to be out looking for them.
The report doesn’t even mention the attitude police and social workers had towards the girls that were being abused. I suspect that class prejudice was at work here. As a Muslim I’ve often heard it alleged that Muslims (it’s always Muslims, never Asians of any other religion) live separate lives from the white, working-class people they share towns (though often not neighbourhoods) with and regard them as “white trash”, so it’s pretty sickening to see evidence that the white professional classes in the same region had such a low opinion of the same population that they do nothing when their daughters are being abused and they know. The report’s recommendations are rather vague, with a lot of talk about information-sharing, “disruptive tactics” against abusers and “awareness raising”. No explicit mention of eliminating contemptuous attitudes against troubled young girls, no mention of moving some of the homes away from Rochdale even if it means spending a bit more money, no mention of providing more secure accommodation for girls who are at dire risk of abuse, no mention of promptly reporting when any child goes missing.
Of course, I have mostly criticised social services here; I have barely touched on the police whose attitude may be a remnant of the kind of misogyny that has long blighted investigation into rape and even serial murder of women, particularly when some of the victims are (or can be seen to be) prostitutes. In this case, the victims were not adults; many were not even teenagers, and were in what was meant to be state care. Surely, as the state has vastly more resources than the average family, it should be perceived by not only the young people themselves but their would-be abusers as a very powerful guardian, not a dead-beat absentee parent who does not notice if they come or go. The state needs to give its employees who care for disturbed older children the means to keep them safe, while making sure it employs people who are committed to the young people they care for and do not have a defeatist attitude when they go off the rails. It is not acceptable to blame the community the abusers came from: if the girls were being properly cared for by those who were meant to be caring for them, all their efforts would have come to naught.
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