Rotherham abuse survivor Sammy Woodhouse discusses her experience of dealing with social workers and why more action is still needed to tackle chld sexual exploitation
The government is not taking child sexual exploitation seriously enough and needs to provide areas with more money to prevent it from happening, one of the survivors of the Rotherham abuse scandal has told LGC.
In a wide-ranging interview Sammy Woodhouse expressed concern about the impact of the government’s austerity agenda on councils, and other public bodies, to properly resource services and prevent children from being put at risk.
Ms Woodhouse acknowledged improvements at Rotherham MBC but said there is “still much more to do”.
While she expressed sympathy with those in the social work profession generally, Ms Woodhouse also called for councils to take a more “human” approach to ensure children in care are really being listened to and looked after.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has already launched 13 investigations into a broad range of organisations, including Lambeth LBC, Rochdale MBC, Nottinghamshire CC and Nottingham City Council.
When I met social workers and cops I didn’t see them as people. I saw them as though there is some factory somewhere and these people are moulded
Ms Woodhouse told LGC child sexual exploitation is widespread.
“It happens in every town and every city. It’s happening in homes, in streets and online,” she said.
However, Ms Woodhouse expressed concern about a lack of resources to tackle the issue.
“There’s not enough money for anywhere… This is not just about professionals not acting, some physically can’t. I know of people who are having to wait 18 months for counselling.
“Look at police forces. There are not enough officers to deal with things. If you report a crime you’re waiting days for a call back. That’s not their fault.
“The government needs to be budgeting better. I don’t think they are taking this seriously.”
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Within the past year Ms Woodhouse has worked with both the Home Office and Ministry of Justice to discuss how child sexual exploitation can be tackled.
While she praised both departments for maintaining an ongoing dialogue with her, Ms Woodhouse added: “They say a few things like ‘we’re doing this’ and ‘lessons [have been] learned’, while [home secretary] Sajid Javid is saying ‘not on my watch’. Well, it is on your watch now so I want him to walk the walk, as well as talk the talk.
“They need to be putting a lot of money into it.
“They are waiting until all of the damage has been done but what they should be doing is putting money in to preventing it so we don’t even have to get to the point where everything is costing all that money.
“They just keep sweeping it under the carpet but it’s not going away and they need to accept that.”
There should be a “national standard” of taxi licensing, with CCTV and audio recording in every vehicle in the country, Ms Woodhouse said. She also said licensing for hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation “needs to be looked at”, and urged greater enforcement of regulations relating to lap dancing and strip clubs.
Ms Woodhouse, who once worked in such a club, said: “It’s horrendous. There’s prostitution, trafficking, money laundering, drugs, alcohol abuse. Girls have no rights and they get the majority of their money taken off them by the clubs…
“It’s an area where people don’t understand it, or don’t want to understand it.”
Ms Woodhouse said she had spoken to numerous councils and other public bodies “and they all say we haven’t got enough money for anything”.
When asked if that was an acceptable response as to why more is not being done to tackle child sexual exploitation, Ms Woodhouse said: “No. For me where there is a will there is a way. I still think things can be done, to an extent anyway.”
She pointed to numerous organisations, set up by “frustrated” survivors of child sexual exploitation, which are aimed at helping other victims. However, she warned these organisations could be “very dangerous” and cause “more damage than good”.
“They have got the personal experience which is great, but I personally think you need to be qualified as well,” she said.
Ms Woodhouse said she wanted the government to set up a national taskforce made up of experts and people who have experienced child sexual exploitation, domestic violence and gang culture to discuss issues and propose solutions.
“A lot of people, government officials and so on, don’t know what they are doing,” she said. “I would prefer it if they said ‘I haven’t got a clue about what’s going on’ rather than saying ‘we’re going to do this or that’. I’d rather they be honest and say ‘what shall we do?’”
When asked what it would take for the government to act on this issue, Ms Woodhouse said ministers were “just giving out the speech”.
“They just need to get on with it now. I don’t want to hear these lines. I want to see action.”
Ms Woodhouse, who was groomed and abused mentally, physically and sexually, spoke of “really bad” experiences of dealing with authorities when she was being exploited as a teenager.
“I was never treated as a victim but the girlfriend, the mistress and someone who was a part of his gang,” she said, and later added: “There were massive failings in neglect from professionals, not just social workers but police as well. Every service failed. I am not saying every professional was bad because we know there were some good ones who tried to raise the alarm.”
Excuses were made, Ms Woodhouse said.
“It was much easier to blame the kids and the parents because it made their job much easier. Some people said ‘we didn’t understand grooming back then’ and I do get that because people don’t get it now, but that is not an excuse. You don’t need to understand something to know that 11- and 12-year-olds are being gang raped by lots of different people [and that is wrong]…
“Then there was the fear factor. The majority of the perpetrators were Pakistani Muslims. People didn’t want to be called racist or xenophobic, but again people can’t use that as an excuse because a lot of perpetrators were also white. Abuse was ignored as a whole.”
Ms Woodhouse said that made it even harder to escape abuse.
“Once you are inside that world it is so hard to get out of,” she said. “I wasn’t just going up against him and the gang, but police and social services… For a 14-year-old to take on the entire system was pretty tough.
“Even when I did make a statement at the age of 16, I didn’t recognise it as child sexual exploitation. I just saw it as my boyfriend treating me really badly and I wanted it to stop. There was CCTV evidence, witnesses and they [the authorities] still didn’t want to know.”
In July, housing and communities secretary James Brokenshire announced the government was ending its intervention in Rotherham. Commissioners were sent in to run the council after the authority was deemed “not fit for purpose” following professor Alexis Jay’s finding that at least 1,400 children were abused in the town between 1997 and 2013.
While Ms Woodhouse was one of those to have spoken out, she said she was initially “quite shocked” at the scale of the abuse.
“I wouldn’t have spoken out if I thought it was just me. But then I remembered all of the other girls [in Rotherham]. I knew about 20 of them and I thought if those are just the ones I know about then there could be hundreds [more] so that’s why I came forward,” she said.
“When the Jay report came out I was quite shocked by that. But if you work it out that’s not that shocking.
“I then realised there was a much bigger picture to this.
“When I first spoke out I thought I would be ignored but what I have realised now is just how powerful a survivor’s voice actually is. Some people are actually listening.
“Every time I speak to someone it just seems to get bigger and bigger. I honestly don’t think we have scratched the surface.
“Rotherham is branded as the exploitation town of the world. Bullshit. We’re just the ones who looked at it and tackled it.”
Rotherham children’s services were rated ‘good’ last January for the first time since the scale of child sexual exploitation was exposed in the town. However, the council has since warned the next few years will be “very challenging” as spending on adult and children’s social care services has left a £30m black hole in its finances.
Ms Woodhouse said: “I think things are better [at Rotherham MBC] from what I have seen, but of course they will do and say certain things when I am around anyway so I can’t give a full view on it.
“I have heard some people say the shift has not fully changed so there is still a long way to go.”
She said she knew of some examples where professionals were “still not listening” to victims of abuse while there had also been instances where information about individuals had been leaked.
Ms Woodhouse urged councils to take a more human approach to social work and move away from a tickbox mentality in order to really understand the issues at play in a child’s life.
“People want to deal with people. Not someone who is suited and booted and talks like a textbook,” she said.
“They walk up suited and booted. That in itself is intimidating.
“When I met social workers and cops I didn’t see them as people. I saw them as though there is some factory somewhere and these people are moulded. They would come out, say the same things, write the same things down.”
She bemoaned social workers using medication as a short-term fix for some children’s problems instead of dealing with the underlying issues.
“When you look at how overworked social workers are and the cases they have got, even when you get a good social worker it’s hard for them to give the case full attention,” she said.
“A lot of work needs to be done with children in care. For kids their social workers are constantly being changed, they’re having to deal with lots of professionals, it’s overwhelming and they are constantly having to build relationships [with new workers].”
Ms Woodhouse did, however, express sympathy with social workers. She said: “It’s an extremely difficult job to do. I would never do it. Some people have said I should become a social worker. No chance.
“People do give them a lot of stick. It’s difficult to do the job and everybody will be watching them, especially now. If you do one wrong move it’s game over.
“But they also need to appreciate this is not just a job. This is people’s lives so that one mistake they do make could destroy someone’s life. But I do think they have a tough time of things.”
Sammy Woodhouse: Factfile
- Groomed and abused from age of 14 by Arshid Hussain, who was 10 years older
- Contacted The Times in 2013 about how authorities had failed her
- Subsequent article helped trigger Jay report, exposing scale of abuse in Rotherham
- Now a campaigner against abuse