Child exploitation is a hidden crime, and offences at home are the biggest concern, says Norfolk chief constable Simon Bailey
There will be more Rotherham-style child sexual exploitation scandals unearthed in the coming months as the “stone is lifted” on the scale of abuse perpetuated on the young, one of Britain’s top police officers has warned.
In an interview with the Guardian, Simon Bailey, chief constable of Norfolk police, who is the leading officer concerned with child abuse within the Association of Chief Police Officers, said that sex crimes involving children had for “too long been a hidden crime”.
He also sparked a clash with fellow professionals by calling on teachers and doctors to take on more responsibility over detecting signs of abuse.
Bailey warned that the scale of the problem was far larger than previously thought, with the latest research estimating that the number of children suffering sexual abuse at some point in their childhood could be as high as 600,000. “We don’t know for sure. But I think it’s tens of thousands of victims [a year] of an appalling crime.”
The senior officer’s comments come as the police reel from a series of reports which cast forces as at best complacent over the issue of child sex abuse, and at worst as being “wilfully blind” to victims’ pleas.
In August Alexis Jay, a professor and former social worker, found that gangs of mainly Asian men had groomed, terrorised and abused 1,400 girls, some as young as 11, in Rotherham over a 16-year period. Jay said police often disbelieved the young girls when they contacted the forces about their experiences.
There have also been concerns raised over the response by police in similar child exploitation cases that occurred in Rochdale, Barnsley and Doncaster.
Bailey called on other agencies, notably teachers and doctors, to get more involved in child protection by devoting extra resources to track children repeatedly being treated for sexually transmitted diseases, having abortions or not attending school, then sharing these intimate personal details with local forces.
This drew sharp criticism from the professions, with teachers’ leaders saying schools were “not social services or the police”.
This week Greater Manchester police, the third largest force in England and Wales, was accused by serving and former detectives of attempting to cover up failings to tackle gangs of Asian men who were abusing young girls.
However Bailey warned that the media was in danger of becoming fixated by “one model of child sexual exploitation” involving Asian gangs. “There has been an unhealthy focus on that particular model of abuse and we cannot afford to take our eye off the fact that it is but one model and we have to look at the bigger picture.”
The concern of the police is that it is not gangs that are the biggest problem when it comes to sexual abuse, but the home.
Bailey said: “[This fixation] is rather overshadowing a far, far, bigger picture, and that bigger picture is that 90% of child sexual abuse takes place in the home where crimes are being perpetuated upon victims by people they know already. It is really important that we get some context around this.”
He accepted that the police would have to endure more criticism, and feared that the rolling programme of inspections of forces “might find many more Rotherhams to come”.
The Greater London assembly warned this summer that in the Met police “borough-based officers did not “always have the skills, training and awareness to enable them to recognise the signs of child sexual exploitation and other forms of child sexual abuse”.
However Bailey said forces were learning the lessons of Rotherham and training frontline officers to recognise instances of child abuse and to report them immediately. He pointed out that in Norfolk he had switched £1m from his budget to combat burglaries to investigations of child sexual abuse.
“I have fewer than five burglaries a day and that is within a population of 850,000 people. Would my community expect me to get that to less than four a day? Or would they rather that I aligned my resources to protect children?”
Admitting that child sex abuse was far more prevalent than previously imagined would require a dramatic shake-up in focus and in the resources available to the police and other agencies who were in contact with children.
At present just 2,500 children were considered at such risk of, or suffering from, sexual abuse and so put into a child protection plan. The estimation that up to 600,000 children are victims comes from the National Household Survey of Adverse Childhood Experiences.
“We weren’t [the only agency] criticised by Jay. We have unfortunately have taken the brunt of [criticism] in my view, but there are other agencies which must look at themselves and ask the questions ‘what was our role in this and in every case of child sexual exploitation and abuse’,” Bailey said.
The police were concerned that reliable “indicators of girls being abused” relating to rates of teenage pregnancies, rates of sexually transmitted diseases, abortions and truancy, were not being shared, said Bailey.
“Children will be known to their GP, known to their teachers, and it’s those professions’ responsibility, in my view, if they have a concern that a child might be the subject of abuse, to flag that up and share their concerns.”
However, teachers’ unions said that any child missing from school for more than three days would have to be monitored. Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “It is important that all professionals who deal with children and young people are aware of the risks they could face and are clear about their role in ensuring they remain safe. Clearly, schools play an important part in this. While they work closely with other agencies who have the authority to intervene it has to be remembered that schools are not social services or the police.”
A British Medical Association spokesperson said there was clear guidance on abuse; the police could have access to patient records only if with a court order. “Patients must have confidence that what they tell a doctor remains confidential.”