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Child sex abuse was downplayed by councils and police which wanted to avoid being labelled “another Rochdale or Rotherham”, a government-ordered inquiry has found. 

On Tuesday, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) published its findings on child sexual exploitation by organised networks. It considered the themes in the context of the police, local authority and other institutions within the local authority areas of St Helens, Tower Hamlets, Swansea, Durham, Bristol and Warwickshire.

The IICSA concluded that there are “extensive failures” in the way child sexual exploitation by criminal gangs is tackled, with police and authorities potentially downplaying the scale of abuse over concerns about negative publicity.

Researchers found that “there appears to be a flawed assumption that this form of child sexual abuse is on the wane. There is also a suspicion that some do not wish to be labelled as ‘another Rochdale or Rotherham’.”

As a result of this, researchers said that there was not “a reliable picture of child sexual exploitation from the six case study areas that provided data” and that the data presented were “confused and confusing” featuring “inconsistencies” and “unexplained trends”. It also concluded that reductions in exploitation may in part be related to changes in local recording practices.

Children forced to perform sex acts at gunpoint

The IICSA said that child victims – some of whom reported being raped, abused, and in one case forced to perform sex acts on a group of 23 men while held at gunpoint – were often blamed by authorities for the ordeals they suffered while some were even slapped with criminal records for offences closely linked to their sexual exploitation.

The report suggested that this might be because of a determination to assure they are not seen as being like Rochdale and Rotherham – two towns which were blighted by recent child sexual grooming exploitation revelations – and that there was a desire to stick to this rather than a desire to “root out … and expose its scale”.

Professor Alexis Jay, chairman of the inquiry, said: “The sexual exploitation of children by networks is not a rare phenomenon confined to a small number of areas with high-profile criminal cases.

“We found extensive failures by local authorities and police forces in the ways in which they tackled this sexual abuse.

“There appeared to be a flawed assumption that child sexual exploitation was on the wane, however it has become even more of a hidden problem and increasingly underestimated.”

The report, the 18th from the IICSA since it was established in 2015, featured harrowing testimony from more than 30 young witnesses.

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