ITV News Central's Lewis Warner reports on the suffering endured by victims and survivors
More than 1,000 children were sexually exploited and physically abused for at least 30 years by gangs of men who would share the youngsters around, a damning report has found.
The Telford Sexual Exploitation Independent Inquiry revealed key agencies dismissed exploitation as ‘child prostitution’ and child abuse as well as exploitation was ignored.
Local authorities and agencies were aware of the abuse at the time it was going on and failed to investigate - which not only left children unprotected but "emboldened" the perpetrators.
Unnecessary suffering and even deaths of children might have been avoided, had West Mercia Police (WMP) "done its most basic job" in acting on reports of such crime, according to findings published on Tuesday.
The inquiry, which is chaired by Tom Crowther QC, has reviewed harrowing evidence and statements from survivors and victims detailing their abuse.
Hundreds of girls, as young as 11, were gang-raped, trafficked, held at gunpoint, beaten, and sold for sex.
Survivors, who have come forward, say they sought help from authorities but were left frightened after being told the police could not help them.
What were the key findings from the report?
More than a thousand Telford children were exploited over decades;
Obvious child sexual exploitation was ignored;
Information was not properly shared between agencies;
Key agencies dismissed child exploitation as “child prostitution”;
Key agencies blamed children, not perpetrators, for exploitation;
Exploitation was not investigated because of nervousness about race;
Teachers and youth workers were discouraged from reporting child sexual exploitation;
Offenders were emboldened and exploitation continued for years without concerted response;.
The CSE response came from committed individuals not from top-down directives;
Even after Operation Chalice, WMP and the Council scaled down their specialist Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) teams to virtual zero - to save money
Impact on victims and survivors
The report revealed the suffering endured by victims and survivors is "destructive to family life".
"Friendships suffer, and forming relationships often becomes difficult. Education and employment are marred; lives are changed irreversibly," it adds.
Mr Crowther reveals he has read other "harrowing evidence providing details of self-harm, where children have choked themselves, strangled and cut themselves".
"The evidence shows that misplaced guilt, shame and a feeling of helplessness experienced by victims and survivors can lead to self-harm and thoughts of suicide," Mr Crowther continues.
The report also references the case of Lucy Lowe, 16, who died along with her sister and mother in 2000 after Azhar Ali Mehmood, 26, set her house on fire.
Lucy was 13 when she met Mehmood, a taxi driver 10 years her senior. She was just 14 when she gave birth to his child.
Mehmood denied murder but was convicted of three counts of murder and one count of attempted murder by a jury in 2001. He was jailed for life with a minimum term of 18 years.
Child exploitation and abuse was ignored
The report found child victims being dismissed as making "wrong lifestyle choices".
Children were treated as having put themselves at risk, rather than having been intentionally targeted for exploitation.
For far too long, there was no Child Sexual Exploitation-specific response, and the focus of all participating agencies was upon changing children’s behaviour - rather than seeking to understand the reasons behind the child’s behaviour and targeting perpetrators.
Key agencies blamed children, not perpetrators, for exploitation
The report urges key organisations to "reflect upon why it took them so long to react when the lives of children – and, consequently, the lives of the adults they would become – were being blighted by exploitation."
Information was not properly shared between agencies
The report also found that after Operation Chalice (a police probe intochild prostitution in the Telford area), West Mercia Police and the council scaled down their specialist teams to virtually zero, in a bid to save money.
Child sexual exploitation was not hidden, the report says, and key agencies were aware of it in detail.
There is evidence that in the 1990s, people working with children – police officers, youth workers and teachers - expressed their concern about repeated episodes of children going missing and numerous cases of adult men exploiting children.
Local news reported public concerns about "child prostitution" and the evidence shows these concerns and reports were, largely, not taken sufficiently seriously by the council, its predecessor authority, or by West Mercia Police.
It led to failure by agencies to investigate emboldened offenders; and their failure to safeguard put children at risk.
The report reveals as both the council and West Mercia Police were concerned, a number of features appear to have contributed to this shocking failure to address CSE.
Seven men were jailed in 2013 following Operation Chalice, a police probe into child prostitution in the Telford area.
In 2018, a Sunday Mirror investigation concluded that around 1,000 children could have been sexually exploited in the Shropshire town over a 40-year period, leading to calls for a public inquiry which was commissioned later that year by Telford and Wrekin Council.
In 2019, one of the seven prosecuted six years earlier was jailed alongside three other men for abusing a "helpless" young girl who was "passed around like a piece of meat", sold for sex and raped.
The victim, aged just 13 when the abuse began in 2001, told how she was forced to perform sex acts in a churchyard, raped above a shop on a filthy mattress, and violently abused when she tried to refuse their advances.
The inquiry, which has taken three years to conclude, looked at allegations from 1989 to the present day but Mr Crowther said he had also spoken to victims whose experiences dated back to the 1970s.
'Sorry to the survivors and all those affected by child sexual exploitation'
West Mercia Police have apologised to children who were sexually exploited in Telford over the past 30 years, saying their actions “fell far short of the help and protection you should have had from us”.
Speaking on behalf of the force, Assistant Chief Constable Richard Cooper, said: "I would like to say sorry. Sorry to the survivors and all those affected by child sexual exploitation in Telford.
"While there were no findings of corruption, our actions fell far short of the help and protection you should have had from us, it was unacceptable, we let you down.
"It is important we now take time to reflect critically and carefully on the context of the report and the recommendations that have been made."
ITV News Central has approached Telford and Wrekin Council and Shrewsbury and Telford NHS Trust for a comment.
Telford and Wrekin Council has said it "apologises wholeheartedly" to the victims of child sex abuse.
In a statement, the council said: "We apologise wholeheartedly to victims and survivors for the pain they have gone through and thank them for sharing their experiences with the inquiry, which must have been incredibly difficult to do.
"Child sexual exploitation is a vile crime that disgusts us and all right thinking people."
If you or someone you know is affected by the issues raised in this article, you can get help by contacting:
West Mercia Police - Have specially trained officers who will listen to you and treat you with sensitivity and compassion, click here
The Rape Crisis national freephone helpline on 0808 802 9999 (12 to 2.30pm and 7 to 9.30pm every day of the year).
A hospital accident and emergency (A&E) department. A doctor or practice nurse at your GP surgery.
A genitourinary medicine (GUM) or sexual health clinic, a contraceptive clinic, young people's service.
For mental health advice, Samaritans operate a 24-hour service available every day of the year, by calling 116 123. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at email@example.com
Papyrus offers mental health support for children and young people under the age of 35 over the phone on 0800 068 41 41 between 9am – midnight every day of the year. If you would rather text you can do so on 07786 209697 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org