12:46, February 23 339 0 theguardian.com

2018-02-23 12:46:04
The Guardian view on tackling sexual exploitation: listening to victims is not enough

The 700 children and vulnerable women groomed and abused by gangs in north-east England were “harmed beyond imagination”, in the words of one victim. Some showed remarkable courage in giving evidence despite years of manipulation, threats and violence. Their bravery led to the conviction of 17 men and one woman last August; Northumbria police’s broader investigation of sexual exploitation continues.

The serious case review compiled by the retired barrister David Spicer shows that victims were let down by authorities in Newcastle in the past. Incidents were treated independently, and victims felt that – while perpetrators were unaffected – they were punished, for example by placing them in secure accommodation. Though meant for their protection, it sent the wrong message, encouraging “an arrogant persistence” among abusers. But while the case has obvious parallels with other recent cases – notably the appalling abuse seen in Rotherham – authorities responded very differently overall. The review notes a dramatic improvement from 2014 onwards, as police and local authorities worked together to protect the vulnerable and bring offenders to justice. Thus, it tells us not only what can go wrong but also what works and must be built upon – and what is needed next.

A first step is to recognise that while listening is essential, it is not sufficient, especially since the “calculated and malign” influence of perpetrators leads many victims to resent or fear intervention initially. A second is to recognise abuse. Mr Spicer warns that it is very likely that vulnerable adults are abused across the UK, and rightly calls for an urgent review of sex exploitation laws to tackle this difficult area. Authorities should also learn from Newcastle’s work in ensuring that abused children are supported into adulthood, in recognising that vulnerabilities are not always obvious, and in raising awareness among everyone from hotel staff to teachers.

A third step is to review the treatment of victims in court; Mr Spicer reported that they had been “disgusted”. Failing to address this inflicts further trauma on those who have already suffered so much, and deters others from bringing abusers to justice. One change, already under way, is allowing the use of video recordings of complainants’ interviews with police and a videoed cross-examination for which only barristers and the judge are present.

Finally, we must seek to understand the underlying causes, including by speaking to perpetrators – despite their frequent reluctance to engage, lack of repentance and keenness to blame and denigrate their victims. Much discussion has focused on the race of offenders and victims in grooming cases. Though the abusers in this case were mainly non-white, they came from diverse backgrounds, including Turkish and eastern European. Most of their victims were white, but were targeted “because they were young, impressionable, naïve, and vulnerable.” Nor did concerns about perceived racism affect the official response, as has been reported elsewhere. Mr Spicer places the potential relevance of cultural factors alongside questions about their profiles, motivations and background influences in his call for research into perpetrators. No factor should be left unconsidered; but nor should anyone lock on to a simplistic focus.

His report shows just how complex the problem is. Listening to victims is crucial. But we also need to look for them, to support them, and to work to prevent such crimes in the first place.