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What the forgotten victims of Operation Bullfinch can teach us about stopping child abuse

Six girls gave evidence of being raped, beated and urinated on in the trial resulting from Operation Bullfinch. But police believe there are dozens more victims. Rather than wring our hands, here are four ways we can stop this saga happening again.

New Statesman
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Earlier this year we heard that a group of seven men from the Oxford area had received sentences totaling 95 years for what the presiding judge, Peter Rook, described as “a series of sexual crimes of the utmost depravity”.

The details, perhaps already forgotten, were horrifying. For eight years, the gang went after children from dysfunctional backgrounds aged between eleven and fifteen.

The approach to “Girl One” was typical: she was 12 when Akhtar and Anjum Dogar, two of the brothers at the centre of the abuse, befriended her. She’d had a happy home life until her mother began drinking when she suffered post-natal depression after the birth of another child. She would stay out all evening with the men, smoking and drinking. They would give her little gifts - which eventually became cannabis and then crack cocaine, to which she found herself addicted.

“I was getting addicted... and Karrar knew,” she told the court. “That's when he started to ask me to do favours for him, which meant sleep with people. At the time I just saw it as I was getting what I needed.”

She and the other girls were guarded so they could not escape and were threatened that they and their families would be harmed if they ever tried to leave. The girls were raped vaginally, orally and anally. They suffered extreme sexual violence: bitten, suffocated, burned with lighters, tortured with blades and urinated upon.

One girl told the court that when she was 12, one of the abusers got her pregnant. She was given drugs and driven to “an underground abortion clinic” in a “normal house” in Reading. Crying, she said: “I felt pain. Not a bruising pain but a snagging pain. Like a crochet hook. It felt like a period pain but 10 times worse.” She said she didn’t want to leave the abuser as she felt she was in a “relationship” with him.

Earlier this year, the gang’s crimes were brought to book. In this heavily mediatised age, our sense of narrative is stronger than it used to be. For most of us, the feeling that this was an ongoing story was over at exactly the moment the media coverage ended. But horror on this scale is never so clean and simple.

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What if I told you that, quite apart from the six girls who gave evidence in court, police believe there are up to 50 victims of the gang? And what if I told you one of the victims knows the identity of several more of the offenders, but, left devastated by the treatment she received from defence lawyers, can’t face the ordeal of giving more evidence in court? Would you really think the story was over then?

And what happens when we think about some of the things we learned about society, and how we protect our most vulnerable, at the trial? Five of the six victims were in the care of social services at the time of the abuse, and the sixth was known to the team. Perhaps we should be concerned that one social worker said it was “common consensus” the girls were being groomed and carers knew what was happening.

And we should certainly be bothered to learn that one summer evening in 2006, police arrived at a dingy flat that stank of weed to find a 14-year-old girl surrounded by 11 men with condoms and bundles of cash, that they arrested five of them, but, brainwashed by her captors, she refused to give testimony and so that was the end of it. A month later, another girl, who had just turned 15, ran away from her children's home and upon her return, staff refused to pay her taxi fare so the driver took her back to Oxford, where the men abusing her found her and raped her for the next two days in various corners of the city’s parks.

In November the same year, a man staying at the Nanford Guesthouse on Iffley Road called police after hearing a disturbance in a nearby room. Officers found a 14-year old girl, naked and cowering in a cupboard having been beaten, urinated on and raped. Should charges have resulted? Should we ask why people under the council’s care were sent to these institutions even after concerns were raised about the running of the care homes and the cleanliness of the guest house? Moreover, a police missing persons coordinator submitted intelligence reports, saying one girl told her she had been kept against her will by the men and forced to snort cocaine, and despite numerous arrests and charges it took the police six years before they realised there was an organised element to this.

Do we really think this story is over? Do we just think these girls, however young, were just trouble, and got what they deserved? Do we take the police’s word for it: they said numerous attempts were made to convince the girls to give evidence, but under the abusers' control, few felt they could. Is that a satisfactory explanation? Do we accept the council’s line that social services did everything they could (girls' mobiles were confiscated, their internet access stopped and staff made checks on them every 15 minutes, out-of-county placements were used and the girls were apparently persuaded to make complaints)?

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This is where real politics - not the Whitehall soap opera we read about most days in our papers - comes in. It’s not the kind of politics you hear too much about: it certainly doesn’t generate too many headlines. But I’d put it to our illustrious recent guest editor among others that it’s this kind of work for which we vote when we elect our parliamentarians: social justice doesn’t just come in economic flavours.

The night before Thames Valley Police made the first arrests in March 2012, they phoned Nicola Blackwood, the recently-elected MP for Oxford West and Abingdon. She tells me: “Like everyone else, I just found it a tremendous shock. Over the next year the different strands: the depth of the depravity, the length of time the abuse had gone on, the complexity of the operation - started to come together. I was on the Home Affairs Select Committee – we saw there had been problems in Rochdale, Rotherham and Telford – so I asked for a Select Committee Inquiry to find out if there were national perspectives.

“We did the inquiry over 11 months. There were consistent problems in every area that had one of these cases – problems with agencies not sharing information properly, problems with not believing victims, problems with the CPS deciding victims weren’t credible – all the same challenges were being spoken about.”

It seemed to Blackwood that a political consensus was building over what the solutions to these problems were, and that some areas were in denial over the scale of the problem: “They either thought, things like that only happen in industrial towns, or they were worried about lifting up the rock and finding they’d have to face the consequences of not taking action.”

In response to these findings, she set up the Childhood Lost campaign. She was backed in the venture by major children’s charities like Barnardo’s and the NSPCC. It comprises six steps. The first is the introduction of Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Orders which could stop offenders hanging around playgrounds and children’s homes.

She says: “One of the big gaps we saw was that it wasn’t possible for police to intervene early enough to protect victims. We’ve had civil prevention orders since 2003, but the thresholds were too high: given the cases we’ve seen, it was outrageous really. We had the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill going through parliament so we put an amendment on and lobbied the Home Office very hard to get the changes put in place. They accepted at the last minute, we got it through the Commons unanimously and we’re now waiting for it to go through the committee stage.”

The second step involves setting up specialist centres to protect victims. Blackwood says: “We should have them in every area. We’ve got one in Oxford called the Kingfisher Centre and it’s changed the way the police and social services deal with exploitation: it allows them to identify potential victims much earlier. Every expert will tell you co-located services – having education, health, specialist police – if you can get them in the room together talking it’s the way forward. Before they were just putting stuff into databases and hoping the other agencies would notice. It made it hard to draw links between individual cases.”

The third step is to give judges clear guidance on sentencing. The Bullfinch abusers were sentenced well outside the guidelines: they got life sentences. Blackwood says: “Those sentences were welcomed by every specialist in child protection. It sends a message – to victims firstly, that they’ll be taken seriously, which frankly many victims haven’t felt, but it also sends a message to perpetrators that they’re not immune. Many victims are told by their abusers no one will believe them because they’re trouble makers. I think trafficking offences need reform: we see individuals committing hundreds of rapes and getting four years. The other area is long-term abuse: we see a collective exponential effect where the victims feel there’s nowhere to turn because there’s potential for other gang members to step in if their abuser goes down.”

The fourth step is special courts for vulnerable witnesses. Blackwood says: “It’s about finding a way to deal with the culture of court. I’m a real fan of ground rules hearings. Before some cases judges can get barristers and other professionals into the court and set the acceptable bounds of behaviour. In the Bullfinch case you had multiple victims, defenders, about 20 barristers in the room not to mention the press and public gallery – it’s a daunting environment. It’s a good discipline to set out the ground rules for a case like that so I’d like it to be automatic.”

She says some positive moves have been made: “The Lord Chief Justice has announced there’ll be specialist judges for these cases. The CPS hasn’t fixed the culture all the way down as we saw in the Summer, when a victim was blamed by a prosecutor for being ‘provocative’. We should have mandatory training for defence barristers because they give the most difficult cross-examination.”

It’s a difficult balance of course: “You need to protect defendants’ rights but I don’t see how they’re being preserved by one barrister after another asking the same questions aggressively. The consequences can be so serious – we recently saw a 17-year-old girl attempting suicide after giving evidence. The problem is that it’s all down to how the judge manages the room.”

The next step is for the Education Secretary to have the power to order Serious Case Reviews (SCRs) to be published. She says: “At the moment the publication is at the discretion of the Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB). There are good reasons for this: when you have an SCR it involves a sensitive case with vulnerable victims. You have to ensure you’re not compromising ongoing investigations or identifying victims or putting them at risk. At the same time it’s an accountability exercise. In Rotherham it became clear bits were being redacted for reasons other than protecting victims. The Department for Education has set up a panel to review the SCRs and make recommendations. They don’t have the power to order publication. I’m worried about this, not because I fear a glut of LSCBs hiding the truth but because I think there could be a situation where a weaker LSCB gets itself tied in a knot due to the complicated relations between the local figures and you need an external body to tell them to face the music.”

She’s keen for the Oxford SCR to be published: “It’s going to be important that it investigates properly what happened in all the incidents when the victims said they spoke to police and social services and no action was taken. There’s a real desire locally for accountability, and that’s the point of the case review: There needs to be a real degree of transparency and accountability so there can be confidence in the social services and police and they can move on from this.”

The final step is to stop the support for vulnerable children being such a lottery. She says: “I don’t have a magic bullet. It’s a huge concern for anyone who’s witnessed one of these cases: the long term consequences are phenomenal. All the charities on our campaign are experienced at delivering victim support. We’re developing proposals for cost-effective interventions that could provide long-term support. We’re looking at specialist fostering for victims of abuse – I think that’s innovative because it’s part of the existing network. We’re trying to be as realistic as we can be.

“These cases are complicated and horrific. One of the first reactions agencies have is just feeling overwhelmed. I think if there’s anything we can do it’s pooling best practice and saying ‘these are the best ways to provide meaningful support.’”

We’ll never solve the problem of child abuse entirely. But Blackwood’s proposals are grounded in evidence, sensible and born of a genuine response to a problem in her constituency. They’re a powerful affirmation of the potential impact for good that backbench MPs can have.