Why was Oxford child abuse ignored?

"If the perpetrators could spot these vulnerable children, why couldn't the authorities?"

The words of one victim, summing up the question asked by many after the release of the serious case review into child sexual exploitation in Oxfordshire.

Maggie Blyth, the independent reviewer, made it clear that: "The review describes a culture in Oxfordshire where the value of escalation to the top was not understood."

Why was there a failure to act on clear evidence? How was a culture of tolerance allowed to develop? What was the lack of understanding that caused delays, that allowed people to get away with their crimes?

Image copyright Thames Valley Police
Image caption The report was published following the jailing in 2013 of seven men, who targeted vulnerable girls and plied them with alcohol and drugs

Following the report's publication, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan told the House of Commons: "At the heart of this are the young people who have been utterly let down by the system and whose lives have been blighted."

But Labour MP for Oxford East Andrew Smith called for an independent inquiry, itemising the failings as he saw it.

"We saw failure to act on clear evidence of organised sexual exploitation; failure to provide protection to children; failure to draw serious issues to the attention of senior management; failure to heed the concerns of junior staff; chaotic arrangements for child protection; un-minuted meetings; and a professional disregard for the illegality of young girls being forced to have sex with older men."

Image copyright Mark butler
Image caption Vulnerable girls were often picked up in parts of Oxford before being abused

Banbury Conservative MP Tony Baldry highlighted the professional responsibilities of those who had contact with the victims.

"Every police officer, council official and social worker should consider whether a youngster is a child, and if they may be a child, they should be regarded as a child, listened to as a child and protected as a child."

It is interesting that along with teachers and social workers the government is now promising to extend to elected members of parliament and councils the criminal liability for acting on sex abuse allegations.

The Henley Conservative MP John Howell pointed out the lessons that are being learned, saying that Operation Bullfinch, which brought the perpetrators to justice, has transformed the legal landscape in which cases can be heard.

Taking responsibility

It took brave action by social workers and police officers working on the streets of Oxford to persuade higher authorities to take action. Lessons have been learned, but so far families and those still working within the services cannot point to any action taken against individuals.

The Thames Valley Chief Constable Sara Thornton is due to leave the force at the end of March, to become chair of the National Police Chiefs' Council.

Image copyright Getty/bbc
Image caption Chief Constable Sara Thornton is leaving the force while council chief executive Joanna Simons may be made redundant

Oxfordshire County Council's director for children, education and families, Jim Leivers, said no staff have been disciplined, even though they "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 parliament the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan summed up the strength of feeling on the issue.

"What we have seen in Oxfordshire and elsewhere are abhorrent, sickening crimes, and they are crimes. He is right to say that any of us in any position of authority feels that those are a stain on our society and must be eradicated. "

So in Oxfordshire and elsewhere, the question will be whether those who have admitted failure are best placed to continue the process of change.

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