Council missed signs of abuse but has learnt from mistakes

DERBY City Council admits that mistakes were made in the care of two 14-year-old girls who fell victim to sexual predators.

With the advantage of hindsight, it concedes there were things it could have done “quicker” and “differently” and a raft of changes have now been made as a result of Operation Retriever.

As the investigation was launched, it emerged that two of the victims had been in the care of the city council at the time of their suspected abuse. A third victim had been placed in a private care home in the city by Leicestershire County Council.

One of the girls in the city council’s care was living with foster parents when she became involved with Abid Mohammed Saddique and Mohammed Romaan Liaqat. The other was living in a children’s home.

As she was groomed by the monsters, the schoolgirl in foster care was taken to a bed and breakfast in the city, driven round in a flash car and invited to “chill” – staying out until the early hours of the morning.

Her foster carers reported her missing and followed the right procedures but the council said part of the problem was the lack of knowledge about sexual exploitation, what it calls a “hidden crime”.

No details about the girl in residential care were heard in court, as the men were not charged with offences relating to her.

More information is expected to come to light when the authority publishes its serious case review today, which focuses on their care and looks at what might have gone wrong along the way.

But after the offences were exposed, both girls were taken into secure accommodation and moved out of Derbyshire for their protection.

Jo Davidson, interim strategic director of children and young people for Derby City Council, admitted the authority’s failings.

She said: “We’re so sorry that these girls have suffered and that signs of abuse and early opportunities to act were missed.

“We have learned from this and acted swiftly to change the way we work.

“Our procedures and the way we communicate with all the agencies involved have been improved.”

It is unclear how long the girls had been in the care of Derby City Council or what other organisations were involved with them.

But in the wake of the investigation, the authority set about looking at making a number of changes, many of which have already been implemented.

An “escalation” policy has been introduced, which enables staff to raise concerns about a child they believe is at risk and to take the issue higher if they feel they are not being listened to.

A specialist training programme has been launched with 1,200 members of staff, ranging from teachers to social workers, having already undergone training on sexual exploitation and how to spot the signs. The issue is now incorporated into routine training for staff.

A sexual exploitation strategy has been implemented within the council. This includes cash to fund a specialist co-ordinator, who will manage a group of staff dealing with cases of this nature.

Jacqui Jensen, director for integrated services at Derby City Council, said: “As a result of the investigation we now have extensive knowledge around sexual exploitation and how young people are groomed. There has been a huge amount of learning that our staff has undertaken as a result.

“We have seen that it is important that we deal with issues arising as soon as possible in order to prevent abuse from happening or continuing.”

The city council has also started restructuring the department to focus on preventing sexual exploitation from happening in the city.

It involves people from different organisations, including health staff, youth staff, family visitors, social services and care staff, working in teams across the city but having the same base.

Mrs Jensen said: “This has been done in order to improve how we share information. This should hopefully prevent a situation where it might take two or three days to get the right person from the right organisation or department on the phone.

“Due to the restructuring, they will be in the same building.”

As part of the serious case review – the findings of which are due to be published within the next 24 hours – internal management reviews were carried out by various organisations.

No staff members were found to be to blame for what happened to the girls in council care and no staff were disciplined or reprimanded.

Mrs Jensen said: “We are now very well armed to tackle this again in the future. I would not say we can guarantee it will never happen again because sexual exploitation is an issue nationally.

“But I do think we will be much better placed to deal with a situation like this again.

“It is heartbreaking to think that kids have gone through this.”

The council has now developed a checklist of the signs of sexual exploitation to look out for.

These include children suddenly having new friendship groups and mobile phones, behaving secretively, talking about other cities, going missing and having money and new clothes.

Work is being done at schools across the city in a bid to educate youngsters against the dangers of sexual exploitation and help them to spot when it is happening.

Jo Davidson said: “This whole investigation has caused schools immense concern regarding their pupils and has highlighted to them the need to look closer at individuals’ attendance and behaviour.

“As more details became apparent regarding these girls, all of the schools have looked at their attendance procedures and ability to identify vulnerable children who may be at risk of exploitation.

“Stronger links have been developed between agencies to share information and concerns about potential vulnerable young people.

“All schools have had level one child-protection training which, at the secondary sector, specifically highlights issues regarding exploitation.

“The Derby charity Safe and Sound, set up to prevent child exploitation, has been into many schools to deliver their own training on highlighting signs and symptoms of child exploitation and the actions that schools should take if they have concerns.

“And all secondary schools in the city have had leaflets delivered, that were commissioned by the Derby Safeguarding Children Board and produced by Safe and Sound, about exploitation, so they can distribute information to young people about this form of child abuse.”

The 17-year-old girl in the care of Leicestershire County Council was the victim of sexual assault at the hands of Liaqat.

She was living in Derby in a private care home when she met Saddique and Liaqat through a friend.

A spokesman for Leicestershire County Council refused to comment on whether it was still placing children under its care in the same private care home in Derby.

He said: “This is a distressing case and clearly upsetting for the young people involved.

“All young people in our care receive frequent and ongoing contact to ensure their welfare and we’ve provided significant support to the young person involved throughout the investigation.

“The safety of vulnerable children and young people is our primary concern and locally, we have identified that this issue requires a very specific response and are working closely with other agencies to improve coordination and information sharing.”

The authority said it constantly reviewed its procedures and has identified that the issue of sexual exploitation “requires a very specific response”. It is working with other agencies to improve information sharing.

The spokesman said: “Training has also been increased to raise awareness of sexual exploitation.”