The incident started after midnight one night last March in my local park. What were the girls, aged 11, 12 and 13, doing in the park at that time of night on their own? Who knew where they were? This isn’t about blaming the parents, or blaming school, or blaming the community, but they had put themselves in danger. Had anyone tried to stop them?
This appears to have been a one-off event, but I’m braced for news of a local predatory sex ring like the one that operated in Rochdale. I suspect they exist in many (most?) deprived communities across the country and too many of our communities in South Leeds fit the profile.
We have more than our share of disaffected young people. School attendance is rising in all our schools, but we still have young people who don’t go to school. We have higher than average number of so-called “NEETs”, young people not in employment, education, or training. We have more “looked after” children and more children on the “at risk” register. So there are plenty of vulnerable young people who are unhappy at home, unhappy at school and likely to hang around on the streets.
Do we have more sex offenders? I don’t know. Someone tweeted South Leeds Life this week asking us to look into the “grooming of young girls by Asians”. The three men in court this week were Asian and we have a large Asian community, but Jimmy Savile wasn’t Asian and Ian Watkins (the Lostprophet’s singer) isn’t Asian and don’t get me started on the Catholic Church.
I’m not saying there aren’t Asian sex offenders, but that’s not the only place to look. It’s about power, or rather the abuse of power by some men. Those men come from different backgrounds, different races and creeds.
My Other Half tells me that when she was growing up in the 1960’s and 70s there was something of a bush telegraph amongst the girls she knew. They knew who was dodgy, which sweet shop not to go in alone and they shared that information with each other. Does that still operate today? I worry that something has changed. On the one hand we’ve exposed publicly that child sex abuse goes on, but we’ve also somehow committed to make everywhere safe, rather than teaching children how to understand risk.
We try to make things safe by putting everyone who ever comes into contact with children through a DBS test (what used to be called CRB). It generates a lot of paperwork and costs a lot of money, but only tells you about the people who have been caught. The other problem on relying on DBS is that it assumes the main problem is “stranger danger” when in fact most child abuse goes on within families.
So how do we protect our children? I don’t mean personally, I mean how do we protect our children as a community?
When the Yorkshire Ripper was about, the Police told women to stay at home after dark. That’s no answer, it just punishes the victims and spreads fear. The University Union’s response was to lay on a free minibus taxi service staffed by volunteers to help women get home safely. We need that sort of collective response, we all need to take some responsibility.
The city is is trying to make itself Child Friendly Leeds. We can all play our part. It’s about respecting children, celebrating children’s achievements as they did last night’s Child Friendly Leeds Awards. It’s about have proper, appropriate relationships with children.
Do you know the children in your street? Do they know you? Do you say hello to them if you see them? If you saw them out late on their own could you talk to them, check they were OK or escort them safely home?
I don’t know the four girls who were abused, I don’t know anything about their family life, but if my daughter had been in the park at that time of night I would have wanted a friendly adult to bring her home.
I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.