Award 2018 Nominee
Story without an ending
She moved from the city into a compound of brick houses, door to door, lawn to lawn, just like there are ten thousands of them in the UK. Blind windows, scrap metal in the gardens, farmland in the distance. The compound is new, at least there’s that. They don’t know each other yet. That’s good.
Because the curious cab driver who brought the guest simply does not want to leave, she does not open the front door for minutes. Behind it there are four little rooms, cleaned meticulously. Only her sons’ socks are hanging on the bathroom’s heater to dry, they are eleven and 16 years old. The older boys’ father is in prison, just like many of his relatives. His name is Arshid Hussain, nickname Mad Ash, and he is a rapist. Just like two of his brothers and one uncle.
There’s an old photo of Mad Ash’s son next to the door, a boy with dark skin and black hair smiles from the photo frame. There’s no recent photo of the teenage boy, she does not want him to be recognised. When she got pregnant, she desperately wanted to keep the baby, thought that Mad Ash really loved her. Sometimes, she still believes this. “I was his favourite”, she still says today: “He gave away the other girls to different men. Not me.”
Back then, social services wanted the kid to stay away from his father; he was considered to be dangerous. The fact that the back then 24-year old man approached her — the teenager with a happy family, a good student — gave her gifts, got her drunk, manipulated her, alienated her from her family, raped her after establishing trust, kidnapped her, threatened her, blackmailed her, instigated her to commit robberies, threatened her parents, the fact that the police regularly had to pick up the 15 year old girl from his car, his bed, or naked in some back rooms, all this, no one really seemed to care about. He was arrested once because they found a baton in his possession. He was released without charge.
This is called grooming: An adult seemingly befriends a child in order to abuse it sexually.
“She calls herself a survivor. The word victim sounds too weak.”
Today, she is a fragile yet strong woman, hair in a tight ponytail, eyebrows in a sharp arc. She calls herself a “survivor”. The word “victim” sounds too weak. A couple of months ago, she left the cover of her pseudonym “Jessica” through which she had testified against Arshid and his family. Her name is Sammy Woodhouse, everyone should know this now. Arshid, now 41 years old, is a Brit with Pakistani origin. He was sentenced to 35 years.
Sammy’s case is only one of countless in the city close to Sheffield in the North of England. And one of thousand comparable cases in the country. They all follow the same pattern. Young men, often taxi drivers, takeaway operators, small cookshops, dealers in Rotherham’s “Curry-Mile”, chatted up girls — and made them submissive. “Mind-bending” is what Sammy’s lawyer David Greenwood calls this procedure. Then, older men came in that used the girls, mostly including violence. Some girls were brought to other cities, forced prostitution followed. For decades. Madness.
“Rotherham’s grooming scandal” made headlines, hundreds of articles were written, dozen documentaries were filmed. It was 1400 child victims alone in this city. Everyone had known. For more than two decades, parents, social workers, and the young victims themselves had kicked down the doors of the police and the municipality. Evidence existed, but disappeared. Witness statements existed, but were not taken seriously. Files with names and dates, DNA traces and protocols existed, but were ignored. The parents were told they should take care of their precocious girls, who were found drunk in the cars of strange men, that this was not the police’s concern. The girls, many of them children in care, were told they were sluts and that is was their fault. That they were worth nothing.
Whilst trying to stop what the police and the authorities did not stop, social workers also went into the Muslim communities, to the imams, into mosques, and said: Look, we have names, addresses. Talk to these men’s families, make them stop. Nothing happened.
The verdict against Arshid was rendered in 2016. Sammy was 30 years old by this point. She was 14 when it all just started. “Us girls were invisible back then”, she says while she brushes away invisible crumbs from her marble couch table. “Today, at least we have a voice.”
There were many reasons for looking away. Ignorance, incompetence, condescension. The fear to appear racist. The fear to disrupt the fragile balance between the Muslims and the rest of the population. Everyone knew that this had an enormous political explosive force. Social scientist Alexis Jay expresses this in her by the state requested report about the “sexual exploitation of the children of Rotherham from 1997 until 2003” as follows: the authorities “knew that most perpetrators were Asian Muslims, and most victims white. They hoped if they were silent, the problem would go away. They were afraid to say what happened.”
Social workers and youth welfare workers, who pointed out that most perpetrators were Asian, were sent to “Racial-Awareness Workshops” where they were supposed to learn to battle their prejudices. The police and the city were afraid of race riots if they took measures. They feared, said lawyer Greenwood, that this could be “oxygen for the right-wing extremists”. In fact, the Neo-nazis gained tremendous popularity in England’s north. The National Defense League and the British National Party marched through the cities, yelling: “Our girls are not fair game”. This was just what they were afraid would happen.
It’s a balancing act. In Germany, the refugee crisis and the subsequent immigration of hundreds of thousand Muslim men led to similar concerns that were voiced through the reactions of the New Year’s Eve situation in Cologne in 2015/16: Is it impermissible to realise that many Muslim men have a problematic image of women? And which consequences can a society take if the answer is Yes?
The list of places where things happened like they did in Rotherham are endless: Newcastle, Rochdale, Huddersfield, Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Derby, Keighley, Skipton, Blackpool, High Wycombe, Leicester, Dewsbury, Middlesbrough, Peterborough Bristol, Halifax, Oxford. Almost all perpetrators had a migrant background: Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Turkey.
It should be a long-running national scandal. But Britain battles too many sexual abuse scandals. The outrage, the horror has worn out. Abuse in churches, in sports clubs, boarding schools, at the BBC, on top of that the daily, rotten, brutal abuse in families, the exploding numbers of users of online forums for sex with children. In additional to that, ten thousands of prostitution victims from Asia and Africa, who are being exploited as sex slaves in Britain. In a recent report, the police has admitted that they are completely overburdened and overworked. And “appalled”.
On the way to Rotherham, with the question if at least grooming has been inhibited, whether police and authorities have learnt, the reporter receives a phone call from the municipality’s press office. Sorry, an interview will not happen because there is nothing to talk about any more. Grooming — that’s history. Has been handled. Has been talked about enough. The city’s police sends an email: “We are not available for an interview”. Move on, there’s nothing to see here.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Just listen to Sammy Woodhouse. Or her lawyer, who represents 75, partly still very young, victims. Or the local member of parliament, who risked her career due to the scandal. Or the journalist that uncovered the case. They all say what no-one wants to hear: The grooming continues. And so does the silence about the causes and background.
Times reporter Andrew Norfolk, who received numerous awards for his investigations, lives in Leeds. London, he says, ignores the real problems of the country. He received first hints in 2004, but only followed them ten years later. Today, he is ashamed of this. “An ethnic minority on the one side; vulnerable, child victims partly coming from broken families or homes, on the other side, no one wanted to touch this. To much danger of generalisation, demonisation. Too much explosive material.” Norfolk did not write about anything else for a long time after he had opened the door to it. He gave up a year ago, could not get the pictures out of his head anymore. At least the police learnt from it, he says, they are taking the case seriously. But he is still irritable easily, and shouts over the noise of a worker’s pub in Leeds, angrily: “The punishment of single perpetrators is not sufficient. The police still treats this phenomenon as a chain of single cases.” The “phenomenon” — it is and remains toxic in a multi-cultural society that is based, and reliant, on understanding and tolerance.
In the municipality’s entry hall, there’s big posters with nice words: “We will listen to children and young people. We will make the right decisions.” Next to it a second poster: “I am your social worker, I promise that I will help you to live in a place where you will not be harmed.” There is no more children homes in Rotherham, because the grooming mostly happened to children in homes. Instead, the city instigates an “Adoption Week”.
As the police and municipality were proven to have failed collectively, having been overstrained and having covered up the scandal, the office heads were dismissed and replaced by government officials. But only a couple weeks ago, news spread that none of the responsible people from back then were held accountable. The “survivors” are furious, again.
Now, the state police National Crime Agency (NCA) investigates “historical cases”, meaning everything that happened until 2014 and was never dealt with. The courts work full-time. Three British-Pakistani gangs have been convicted. The next process begins soon: Twelve more men were charged and will appear before court in January. The NCA does not want to talk either, but reaches out to the SZ with a proof of their work: 28 convictions, 88 suspects, 36 criminal investigations. Due to the enormous number of perpetrators, the focus lies on those who are still active today, and who have caused the most suffering.
The districts’ Labour MP Sarah Champion doesn’t think this is enough. She puts numbers from the local police on the table: 231 girls have filed charges of sexual abuse through grooming gangs. Last year alone. “Mothers that used to be victims themselves come and speak to me, panicked. They are telling me that men approach them and say: Your daughter is almost ready now, she is mature.”
Everything continues, says Sarah Champion, the perpetrators and their clans now have sons that approach the daughters of the survivors. “As if it were normal. It has been going on for so long now, people have somehow gotten used to it.”
The political pressure remains, too. Champion recently experienced this. She studied psychology, a smart, kind woman with dark curls and a relaxed confidence. Until recently, she had been an up and coming star in the Labour party, she was responsible for women and equality in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. She was dismissed this summer. She broke a taboo that should not be a taboo anymore: She publicly said that Great Britain had a “problem with British-Pakistani men”. This is racist, it was said, she could not remain in her position. Since then, she has been declared a personal non grata in the Labour party.
Champion sticks to her views: “If I have unintentionally offended many Muslims in this country, but helped to save children in the meantime, I would say it again.” It seems obvious that the grooming gangs, contrary to many abuse cases, include an ethnic component. “Very slowly, the first researching programmes start dealing with the question of whether religious or cultural features lie at the basis of this scandal.” She stresses, just like all other partners to this conversation, that the majority of child rapists in the UK clearly are white men. And that the majority of abuses happened within families. “But that cannot mean that these patterns won’t be investigated.”
In court, taboos and cultural conflicts are becoming clear as well. Few of the accused have made a confession. Sammy’s rapist, Arshi Hussain has not done so either. Pakistani immigrants call their victims “trash”, scum, in their eyes, the girls do not have any honour, quotes Woodhouse’s lawyer David Greenwood from the files. He sat in numerous processes. “You raised your kids to drink and have sex, we only take advantage of this”, is a sentence he hears a lot.
Many Muslim perpetrators, says abuse-specialist Greenwood, do not view these children as children, because teenagers are deemed marriageable in their world. They are not seen as “pedophile freaks but human traffickers”. Nevertheless, there is a certain solidarity within the Pakistani community. Zlakha Ahmed from the women’s rights group Apna Haq that battles domestic violence says: “Abuse is abuse; its is time we acknowledge this and bring the perpetrators forward, even if they are part of our community.” A speaker of the younger generation, Mobeen Hussein, has established himself as a mediator, he stresses that his people were the fist to say: This has to stop.
“The British-Pakistani community does talk to us, certainly”, Allan Billings confirms. The state-appointed political supervisor for the South Yorkshire police, a trained vicar, appeases. “We cannot allow our society to split up. Solidarity is important. And we cannot forget that the perpetrators are brutal criminals that are also feared by their own community.”
“She isn’t interested in the perpetrator’s motivations, she is interested in the survivors.”
Sammy Woodhouse has other worries. She isn’t interested in the perpetrator’s motivations, she is interested in the survivors.
More than 700 girls from Rotherham, who filed compensation claims for their suffering with the responsible State Commission, were declined. Sammy also had to fight hard for her compensation. The authorities’ justification: Even if the rapists were put behind bars, the possibility that the girls did agree to the intercourse cannot be excluded. “Consensual sex” is what they call it. Even kids that were eleven at the time the crime was committed could be refused the state money according to current law. When this was made public, there was an outcry; it was said that the victims were turned into the perpetrators. The ministry of justice promised change. Until now, nothing has happened.
There is no new man in Sammy’s life, and very little private contacts. She does not have the strength for it, carries to much baggage that she still has to get rid of: Since her time with Arshid Hussain, she has a large criminal file. Many of the girls committed criminal acts because they were forced to do so, because they were addicted. Sammy now fights for a new law that she calls “Sammy’s Law”. Victims of grooming gangs need to be reassured that their criminal file will be deleted. Otherwise, they would be too scared to go to the police. She has not been heard thus far.
Currently, she is still in the process of piecing her life back together. A couple years ago, when she was 25 years old, she adamantly believed that she had freed herself mentally from Mad Ash. He was still at large and she had not testified against him yet. She had had a second child from a relationship with a drunk. Nevertheless, she went back to Arshi Hussain. “I was alone. And he was my son’s father.” Mad Ash was wheelchair-bound by this time, he had been shot. She was sure that he would not do anything to her — but maybe he could do something for the son.
“I was terribly wrong. The things he did to my son were unbearable, unspeakable.” The teenager has severe mental problems today. Mostly, she feels strong these days, she says. But sometimes, she feels discouraged. Because the fear remains. “I repeatedly receive mails from girls that are now the targets of these men. It never stops.” She points toward her front door that is sealed shut. “These men are out there.”