Oxfordshire grooming victims may have totalled 373 children
- 3 March 2015
- From the section Oxford
As many as 373 children may have been targeted for sex by gangs of men in Oxfordshire in the last 16 years, a serious case review found.
The investigation came after a sadistic sex gang of seven men were jailed in 2013 for abusing six girls in Oxford, between 2004 and 2012.
Thames Valley Police and Oxfordshire County Council made "many errors" in that case and could have acted sooner.
A victim of the gang said the issue had been "swept under the carpet".
Of the 373 cases, the council said about 50 victims were boys.
'Failed to see grooming'
Speaking at a press conference, the chair of Oxfordshire Safeguarding Children Board (OSCB) Maggie Blyth said: "What happened to the victims is deeply disturbing.
"It is shocking that these children were subjected to such appalling sexual exploitation for so long.
"[There was] a culture across all organisations that failed to see that these children were being groomed in an organised way by groups of men."
Speaking in the House of Commons, Oxford East MP Andrew Smith called on the government to set up an independent inquiry.
The report highlighted a "professional tolerance to knowing young teenagers were having sex with adults".
Ms Blyth said there had been 60 "learning points" identified within the review and 13 recommendations put forward.
The report also called for research into why a significant proportion of people convicted in these kind of cases are of "Pakistani and/or Muslim heritage".
In the Oxford case, known as Operation Bullfinch, two of the men were of east African origin and five of Pakistani origin.
In a statement, religious groups in Oxford said: "We want to make it absolutely clear that child sexual exploitation is an abhorrent and wicked crime. It is contrary to the faith and teachings of all our religions."
The report, compiled by the OSCB, found authorities made mistakes and could have acted sooner but it found no evidence of wilful neglect or that the signs of exploitation were ignored.
It blamed a lack of action on three key attitudes of those in power:
- Girls were disbelieved due to the interpretation of their "precocious and difficult" behaviour
- There was a failure to recognise their ability to resist abuse had been eroded by grooming escalating to violent control
- There was also pessimism about the prospect of successful convictions as most of the evidence gained was either withdrawn or later denied
A victim of the Operation Bullfinch gang, who was 13 when the abuse started, told BBC News: "Looking back as an adult now, it's disgusting the way we were treated.
"My mother would [tell authorities] she's been with older males... she's been beaten up, she's been injected with heroin.
"That was not enough for them to do anything about it, [to the authorities] we were just troublesome girls, probably a bit gobby, a bit aggressive and they just didn't want to know.
"They [the men] used to pick girls up outside social services offices on the Cowley Road, if that doesn't say something then I don't know what does."
What is Operation Bullfinch?
In May 2011, Thames Valley Police and Oxfordshire County Council launched Operation Bullfinch - a joint investigation into suspected serious sexual offences against children across the county.
Two years later, seven men were convicted at the Old Bailey of 59 counts of offences including rape, trafficking and arranging or facilitating prostitution.
Since then, four more men have been convicted as part of the inquiry.
A dedicated team of 20 detectives continue to investigate potential victims and suspects of child sexual exploitation in Oxfordshire.
Source: Thames Valley Police
The girls, aged between 11 and 15, were plied with alcohol and drugs and led to believe their abusers were their boyfriends.
They were then each either abused by the men themselves, given to the men's friends or offered at a price to others who were not on trial.
One victim was forced to have an illegal back-room abortion when she was 12 after falling pregnant at the hands of one of her abusers.
Following Mr Smith's call in the Commons, education secretary Nicky Morgan failed to answer his question about an inquiry but said further action would be taken.
Chief Constable Sara Thornton, from Thames Valley Police, repeated an apology to victims and their families.
She said: "We are ashamed of the shortcomings identified in this report and we are determined to do all we can to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again."
The force confirmed no officers or individuals had faced any disciplinary action over Operation Bullfinch but it has referred itself to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
Ms Thornton is due to leave the force at the end of March, to become chair of the National Police Chiefs' Council.
Jim Leivers, Oxfordshire County Council's director for children, education and families, said the council, where no staff have been disciplined, "made many mistakes and missed opportunities to stop the abuse".
The chief executive of the county council Joanna Simons has resisted calls to resign but may be made redundant this summer after proposals were voted through to axe the £250,000-per-year post, as part of savings.
In a statement, Oxford City Council said the report "shows very clearly that the girls were badly let down by the people and organisations that could - and should - have protected them".
A joint statement from NHS organisations in Oxfordshire expressed "regret that the abuse was not uncovered and information acted on sooner".