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Special Investigation: Society’s Reluctance to Acknowledge the Scale of Child Sexual Abuse and a Lack of Political Support for Its Survivors is Keeping the Vulnerable At Risk

Part Four: The far-right is able to present itself as ‘filling the gap’ left by a lack of services with its own range of ‘support’ for survivors

Former Chief Prosecutor of North-West England Nazir Afzal. Photo: Cheese Scientist/Alamy

This investigation was first published in the May 2024 print edition of Byline Times

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The lack of support for survivors of child sexual exploitation is a major reason why vulnerable women are susceptible to far-right groups offering support, experts told Byline Times.

Cuts to council budgets have impacted child social care services provided by local authorities – even as demand has increased. Byline Times has previously reported on the crisis in children’s homes that has seen private equity firms, and even the Qatari Government, make hundreds of millions of pounds from putting vulnerable children in unsafe accommodation. In at least one case, staff failed to stop at-risk children from being sexually abused by men in the area.

Mental health support is another area under huge pressure. 

The risk of CSE survivors attempting suicide can be as much as six times greater than in the general population, but no ring-fenced, long-term, specialist support is provided by government or the NHS. To access even general mental health support, CSE survivors face a waiting list with nearly two million others.

Most survivors, or children at risk of abuse, are forced to rely on a patchwork of charities – some government-funded, some not – to help deal with their trauma. But these charities are themselves struggling. 


Special Investigation: ‘The Far-Right Is Cynically Taking Advantage of Child Sexual Exploitation Survivors’

Andrew Kersley spent five months speaking to survivors of child sexual exploitation and experts on the ‘grooming’ of vulnerable women by far-right groups to understand why it is happening

A number of those Byline Times spoke to for this investigation said charities are struggling to meet the record levels of need from a growing number of survivors while operating on shoestring budgets. Although the Government recently announced that it is doubling its funding for child abuse charities to £2.4 million, this amounts to just £22 for each of the 107,000 child sexual abuse cases logged by the police in 2022.

These problems help explain why the far-right is able to present itself as ‘filling the gap’ left by this lack of services with its own range of support for survivors. 

But it is often not just about financial support. According to several of the experts Byline Times spoke to, survivors of child sexual exploitation, and their experiences, have too often been disregarded by the Government, media, and police.

In many of the high-profile cases of on-street grooming – such as Rochdale and Rotherham, but also less well-known examples across the country – there have been systemic issues with how authorities have reacted to reports of abuse.

One report into the mass grooming of underage girls in Rochdale found that police had repeatedly failed to record evidence and testimonies of those who came forward begging for help. Authorities across the region then repeatedly failed to investigate for years after victims first came forward. Dozens of children had been sexually exploited at the hands of a gang of perpetrators operating in the area.  

Despite the press attention the issue has received in the years since, these systemic failings continue. One academic Byline Times spoke to said they had recently attended a meeting where police dismissed the testimonies of a CSE survivor as they were deemed to not be acting as upset as they should have been if they were actually a victim (despite lack of emotion being a common response to shock). 


Special Investigation: The Network of Far-Right Groups Exploiting the Survivors of Child Sexual Exploitation

Part Two: The interconnectedness of far-right groups reflects the extent to which those holding extreme beliefs have used the issue of child sexual exploitation to further their own ends

“It is important to understand and address the reasons why some survivors and their loved ones might be susceptible to approaches from the far-right, which means thinking carefully about what they offer,” University College London’s Dr Ella Cockbain said.

Perhaps at the core of the problem is the fact that society still struggles to get to grips with the scale of child sexual abuse being perpetrated. One in 10 children – and one in six girls – are estimated to experience sexual abuse before the age of 16. Even that figure, authorities believe, is likely to be an underestimate.

Nazir Afzal, the Crown Prosecution Service’s former lead on child sexual abuse, said: “It’s far too common. I always say that it’s the pandemic that will outlive the pandemic we’ve just been through. By focusing on the exploitation of it, we mustn’t minimise the fact that it occurs and its impact.”

Diverting Focus From Survivors To Perpetrators

For some experts, this cuts to the core of why the narrative of ‘Muslim grooming gang’ persists, even as the evidence calling into question its credibility has become clear.

“We can’t cope as individuals by accepting that, actually, this can happen to my child, my niece or nephew, or could be perpetrated by someone we know,” Helen Beckett, Professor of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of Central Lancashire, told Byline Times.

“It’s much easier to think of it as a problem ‘out there’ that affects ‘other people’. So the ‘grooming gangs’ idea fits into this othering narrative – that it’s other people over there doing this who are not like us.”

The “societal stigma and silencing” around child sexual abuse, she said, leaves us unable to contemplate, let alone discuss, its existence and scale, unless we are able to project it elsewhere, as something alien or imported.

This can have serious repercussions for society as a whole. But, more than anything, the biggest victims of that failure are sexual abuse survivors themselves. 

The experts Byline Times spoke to warned that, by solely focusing on Asian grooming gangs, thereby ignoring the scale of abuse elsewhere in society, a “hierarchy of abuse” is created. When everyone, from the media to the police, begin to place greater focus on ‘cracking down on Muslim grooming gangs’, it fails other survivors – “whose abuse is overlooked because it doesn’t fit that narrative”.


Special Investigation: ‘Muslim Grooming Gangs’ – An Old Conspiracy Mainstreamed by Today’s Politicians and Press

Part Three: In 2020, a two-year study of crime data and academic research by the Home Office concluded that ‘group-based offenders are most commonly white’

Afzal said that he has been contacted by lawyers who have struggled to get the police to open criminal cases into perpetrators of child sexual exploitation who are not from Muslim or south Asian backgrounds. He said he has also been told of social services training programmes in which at-risk children are solely told to avoid getting into cars with south Asian men. 

“You’re almost giving them a false sense of reassurance that, if they don’t hang around with certain people they won’t be abused, even when eight out of 10 sex abusers in prison are British white men,” Afzal told Byline Times.

Following Suella Braverman’s comments last year about the threat of Muslim groomers, a coalition of charities and experts in child protection – including the NSPCC and Victim Support – wrote an open letter, stating that narratives based on “misinformation, racism and division” were putting children at risk by drawing attention away from other sources of sexual abuse.

Better funding and serious reforms to the policing of sexual abuse, statutory requirements to offer prolonged psychological support to survivors, and a huge uptick in government funding for charities and support services were all floated as potential solutions to the crisis.  

But doing any of that would also require coming to terms with how, as a society, we have enabled this – through our refusal to acknowledge the scale of child sexual abuse and address it with the funding and support people need.

One of the biggest tragedies of the ‘Muslim grooming gangs’ narrative, according to survivors Byline Times spoke to, is that it redirects the focus from survivors onto the race or religion of the perpetrator – and reinforces the very stereotypes that survivors face as a barrier to being heard in the first place. 

“I was abused by all men and the police didn’t give a f**k about any of them,” Lara (not her real name) said. “Because it’s not about how the police saw those men – it’s about how the police saw me. That’s what it was about: how the police see young women from working-class backgrounds.”

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