“Things have changed”.
When I heard those words last week I was bowled over. They were spoken by one of the three young women groomed and sexually abused in Rotherham between 1999 and 2003, whose perpetrators had just been gaoled at Sheffield Crown Court. In the general rush to report the sentences, the significance of the words may have been overlooked. This would be a pity, because what she was saying was so important for us to hear.
She was saying that “things have changed” at Rotherham Council and South Yorkshire Police. That is so significant that we should pause and consider what she meant.
We now understand the way grooming works. This young woman – she is now in her late twenties – had been groomed as a teenager. In other words, she had been seduced into thinking that the young man who befriended her really loved her. At first he was kind and attentive and loving. Then the abuse began. But by then she was trapped. As all the girls found, if they then attempted to escape from the men, they would be bullied, threatened and intimidated.
In the case of this young woman, her family were beside themselves with anxiety and turned to the authorities for help. We now know the sorry story of those years. Authority, whether in the form of the social services or the police, simply turned away. The girls and their families were neither believed nor helped.
This is what was so starkly revealed by Professor Alexis Jay in her report in 2014.
I became Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire shortly after that report and as a direct result of it: my predecessor had been forced to resign because he had been a member of Rotherham council. So I have lived for the past two years in the knowledge of those past failures by the police and other agencies and with a clear mandate to ensure that attitudes and practices were turned round. Above all, victims had to be given back the confidence to report what had happened to them, their crimes had to be investigated thoroughly and their perpetrators brought to justice. Without convictions, no progress could be made finding and helping the 1400 girls that Professor Jay wrote about.
None of this has been easy. Additional resources had to be switched into these investigations and that was difficult when every part of the police budget was having to be cut back because of austerity. Officers and staff had to be trained to understand the grooming process and to deal with victims who were fragile and often still frightened.
As there was little or no forensic evidence from all those years ago, cases crucially depended on getting witnesses to come forward and testify in court. This was hard because they faced intimidation from the abusers who often lived locally. Great care had to be taken to give them support before and during the trials.
One of the first things I did as Commissioner was to form a panel of victims, survivors and their families to help me and the force understand better how victims had been treated in the past and how the police and other agencies had to change to get things right. One of the young women whose abuser went to gaol last week, and her family, were part of that panel. I think the panel also gave them further re-assurance and support.
All of this is why those three words, “Things have changed”, were so significant.
This was the victim of child sexual exploitation on the streets of Rotherham, who had been let down repeatedly by agencies in the past, now able to say of Rotherham Council and South Yorkshire Police, “Things have changed”.
This was not the council, or the police, or Her Majesty’s Inspectors, saying it, but a victim herself. In the final analysis, this has to be the voice that counts.
Justice has been a long time coming for these young women. Not everything about the response of the police and other agencies is as good as it could be. There is always a need to learn more. But for the first time in two years I feel we can begin to think that a corner is at last being turned because she was able to say, “Things have changed.”
The words were also incredibly generous when you think of the past experiences of this young woman and her family at the hands of the authorities. My job, and the job of all those who work for the police, for social services and for the agencies that support victims and witnesses, is to ensure that she never has cause to regret saying them.