Grooming gangs: what we know about the perpetrators and victims

29 August 2014

The fallout from a report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham continues to make headlines, as politicians including Nick Clegg and Theresa May call on the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire to resign over what the report called "blatant" failures of leadership.

There's been speculation about how prevalent the sexual grooming of children might be outside of Rotherham, and much discussion elsewhere about the fact that the majority of perpetrators there were described as 'Asian' by their victims.

The data is patchy; the ethnicity of abusers is not recorded as standard by police and other agencies, and those that do record it often use different categories. Additionally, concerns have been raised that authorities might be more likely to record the ethnicity of Asian suspects, or even to misrecord some suspects as being Asian.

Potential problems with the data

Information on the victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse is difficult to come by. An unknown number of offences remain undetected by the authorities, and where cases do come to light the characteristics of those involved are not always recorded or are recorded in unhelpful, or possibly even discriminatory ways.

The Office of the Children's Commissioner (OCC) conducted an inquiry into child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups in England, which gives some detail on the ethnicity of perpetrators and victims.

We've summarised the findings of the OCC inquiry below, but there are a few caveats to bear in mind. In its interim report it noted a number of issues with recording practices:

...during site visits it was apparent that agencies frequently focused on the model of sexual exploitation identified in high profile cases such as those in Derby and Rochdale. Perpetrators, like victims, had similar individual characteristics to those featured in those cases. As a result this was the specific pattern of abuse professionals looked out for. They often told the panel that the perpetrator groups were 'Asian' without a more detailed analysis, including whether this label referred to nationality or ethnicity. The Inquiry was informed in several site visits of groups of perpetrators who were described generically as 'Asian' but who, upon further investigation, turned out to include Afghan, Kurdish and White British perpetrators.

The report also identified similar tendencies when profiling victims, with professionals sometimes mistakenly characterising them as being predominantly white even when this wasn't the case.

There's also evidence to suggest that the data is skewed by a tendency of authorities to record the ethnicity of some groups more often than others - the OCC report also said that "it is evident that data are more proactively gathered on men and boys of Pakistani and Kurdish origin".

And the recorded crimes might not reflect the nature of all the crimes that take place. As part of its research the OCC interviewed children and young people whose abusers had generally never been charged. It found what it called a "significant gap" between their experiences and recorded data.

That applies equally to details about the victims themselves - there's some reason to suspect that children from minority ethnic backgrounds might be less likely to report abuse than White British children. This was a concern raised in the Rotherham report, which recommended greater engagement with Pakistani communities to help encourage victims to come forward.

Where records exist, between a quarter and half of groups of abusers are Asian

The OCC report looked at child sexual exploitation committed in England by gangs and other groups.

In both cases the exploitation involves children receiving something (including food, gifts, or affection) in exchange for sexual acts. In some cases, for example with the exchange of explicit photographs, this might not involve physical contact between the exploiter and his or her victim. There's more detail on this in the NHS's guide to recognising and dealing with child sexual exploitation.

Gangs are social groups of children and young people who are seen by themselves and others as belonging to a definite group, and who often engage in criminal activity. This criminal activity could include but is not limited to sexual exploitation. A group is two or more people associated with one another and who, in the context of this report, act to exploit children together. The Rotherham findings related to sexual exploitation more generally, and was not restricted to either gangs or groups.

Many aspects of the way sexual violence was enacted and experienced were similar whether perpetrated by gangs or groups, but the profile of the perpetrators and victims tended to be different. For instance, gang members tend to be younger.

It found that 36% of perpetrators of gang or group related sexual violence were white, 27% were asian, and 16% were of an undisclosed ethnicity. The majority of child victims of gang or group related sexual violence (60%) were recorded as "white", with unknown making up the second largest category at 14%.

The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) publishes more specific data on group-related grooming, although unlike the OCC report it's based only on police data. According to data submitted by 31 police forces, in 2012 there were 57 groups who were known or suspected of  sexually abusing teenagers and young adults  on the basis of their vulnerability (rather than as a result of a specific interest in children). The abuse in these cases involved physical contact. Of these groups:

  • 50% of were all-Asian, 21% all-white, and 17% included members from multiple ethnicities.
  • 24% of group-members were under 20, and 53% were between 20 and 30.
  • 67% of the groups were of four or fewer men.

These cases had 144 identified victims, for whom ethnicity and age information was recorded:

  • 97% were categorised as white.
  • 3% of victims were aged 12 to 13, 57% were 14 to 15, and 40% were 16 to 17.
  • "Over half" of the victims were in local authority care.
  • Of the 118 victims with a recorded gender, all were girls.

It's important to be cautious about interpreting these figures - the same kinds of issues identified in the OCC report may well apply to them.

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