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  1. ITV Report

Social workers 'knew children in their care were being sexually exploited', women claim

By Juliet Bremner: ITV News Correspondent

Jessica was just 14 when she was taken into care by Rotherham Council. She was pregnant and believed she was in love in with a man who was almost twice her age, married and with a violent criminal record.

She now knows that she was the victim of grooming by a much older man who was able, with a toxic mixture of bribery and threats, to abuse her for several years.

She is one of 15 women now taking joint legal action against Rotherham Council alleging that social workers failed to protect them.

It is the first time that a local authority has been sued for allowing children in their care to be sexually exploited by men while they were still under the age of consent.

Jessica - not her real name but an identity we have given her to ensure her anonymity - did not come from a dysfunctional family. She describes a happy childhood where she dreamt of becoming a professional dancer.

But her family could not control the influence the older man had on their teenage daughter.

He bought her presents, gave her cigarettes and alcohol and encouraged her to stay away from school.

Jessica's family was torn apart when she was taken into care.

Her parents finally accepted she should go into care after she became pregnant for the first time - she would be expecting another child by the same man before her 16th birthday.

The couple were only separated when he was again jailed for a violent crime, nothing to do with having sex with an underage girl.

Instead of enforcing a separation between the 14-year-old child in their care, the social workers allowed extensive daily contact with a violent offender and Jessica claims both Rotherham Council and South Yorkshire Police knew that this was a sexual relationship.

She told me that when she was sent to live with a foster parent she was allowed to see the man whenever she wanted, with only two conditions: One that she wasn't picked up immediately outside the house and two that she was back by 10 pm.

She also alleges that social workers frequently referred to him as "her boyfriend."

The social workers told Jessica's parents that they had no power to stop the relationship because she was with him willingly and would not make a formal complaint to the police.

Yet the police appear to have seen evidence of the illegal relationship for themselves and still took no action.

On one occasion officers from South Yorkshire police were called to the property where Jessica was in bed with the man; she tried to hide but was pulled out from beneath the bed.

Despite knowing her age, it was Jessica who was arrested and not the man.

After the man was released from jail, she requested protection from the police but was told there was nothing they could do to stop him visiting.

Reflecting on this now that she is an adult with her own children, Jessica says social workers should have known as professionals that she was being groomed. She describes the fact that she was allowed to have unlimited access to him as "horrendous".

She also believes that if the police had arrested the man it may have saved dozens more girls from being groomed.

Even when she complained to them in 2012 that she was a victim of historical sex abuse, Jessica claims the police said there was nothing they could do.

South Yorkshire Police point out that they have now launched an investigation into these claims, which they describe as "lengthy and complex", but as yet no one has been arrested.

David Greenwood, the lawyer representing the 15 women, says he knows that a child safety expert was appointed by Rotherham Council in the late 1990s to look into the problem of young girls being targeted by older men.

After consulting with social services, the police and other groups responsible for the care of vulnerable young people, he concluded that more than 40 teenagers were being exploited by a small group of men.

He dismisses the notion that they did not know there was any kind of problem and says that even if the council staff did not recognise grooming as a specific issue, they knew it was illegal for a 14 year old girl to be having a sexual relationship with an adult.

ITV News has seen the entire social services record relating to Jessica and there are repeated phrases that prove both police and social workers were aware that she was in an unsuitable and potentially harmful relationship.

They wrote in March 2000: "Due to her age of 14 she is considered to be morally and physically in danger".

This is followed up four months later with a description of her as "a missing young person - at risk who may be with adult boyfriend".

And in August, shortly after her 15th birthday, another social worker writes: "she's mixing with bad crowd, involved in prostitution etc."

But none of these descriptions of what was happening to a child in their care appear to have rung alarm bells.

Lizzie was targeted by a gang of older men.

Another victim, who were are calling Lizzie, was 12 when the council took her into emergency care. The school had warned that she was being targeted by a gang of older Asian men. In Lizzie's case the men have been prosecuted and convicted in 2010. Five of them were sentenced to a total of 32 years in jail for abusing girls in Rotherham.

But she is part of the legal action against the council because she claims that they should have done more to stop the men having any access to her while she was in the care of the local authority.

Six years after the abuse Lizzie still finds it difficult to speak about what happened to her, she hasn't even been able to tell her closest relatives about the appalling sexual abuse she was forced to endure as a 12 and 13 year old girl. She says that the memory of what happened has made her a recluse.

She has a pet monkey for company but rarely leaves her flat or speaks to anyone.

Five Asian men were sentenced to a total of 32 years in jail for abusing girls.

Her mother says that she blames the council for putting her daughter into a children's home but allowing the men to continue to have contact with her. She claims Lizzie frequently went missing, once for an entire weekend.

Lizzie's mother also told us that when this happened it was her and a friend that had to search the local parks for her daughter. Once she alleges that she caught her with one of the older men and chased him off.

Lizzie was eventually moved to another county, more than two hours away, to try and stop the men reaching her. But her mother claims that gang members were even spotted there.

Her mother claims that, while they were waiting for the court case to happen, one of the gang sent messages threatening to rape her and petrol-bomb the family home.

Lizzie's mother says the whole family still feels very let down by the council.

The abuse that occurred has caused "a lot of pain and hurt - I don't think we will ever get over it," she said.

Rotherham Council told us that they acknowledge that their safeguarding services "were not as strong as they ought to have been" prior to 2009. They point out that they have apologised to the individuals that were let down.

But neither of the victims we spoke to fell they have received an adequate explanation about how they allowed to be abused while in the care of people paid to ensure their safety.