In one of my earliest childhood memories, I am sitting on a man’s lap, frozen in fear as I feel his hand creeping up my leg towards my underwear.
I am five years old, with no frame of reference about what is normal and what is not. All I know is that I don’t like what he is doing, and I want him to stop. But I cannot find a way to tell him.
Around me, in this suburban home in the Shropshire town of Telford, are all the usual signs of a convivial summer gathering: grown-ups chatting over drinks and a discarded football lying on the grass where I had been playing minutes before, twirling around in my skirt, thrilled by the way it rose and fell like a ballerina’s.
This man is an adult, someone I should trust, but what he was doing felt wrong in a way I could not put into words.
What I didn’t know then was that this was the start of a pattern of sexual exploitation not just by this man but many others. For years, between the ages of five and 14, I was abused by successive men who left a devastating legacy. As my life fell apart, I found myself homeless by the age of 16, and there were many nights when I would lie there — racked by visceral self-loathing — wishing I would simply disappear.
How could I not hate myself?
Samantha Smith writes: ‘In one of my earliest childhood memories, I am sitting on a man’s lap, frozen in fear as I feel his hand creeping up my leg towards my underwear…’
Of course, I had tried to seek help. I eventually reported my abuse and was interviewed by a police child sexual exploitation team. But they did absolutely nothing to bring my abusers to justice.
In fact, I was made to feel unworthy of help or support, as though the abuse I experienced was my fault. My social workers even spelled it out. ‘Your behaviour and actions have led you to where you are today,’ they told me. Isolated as I was, I had no idea that I was not alone, but one of more than a thousand children in Telford who had been sexually exploited over decades while the police and youth workers, whose job it is to protect us, not only failed to act but all too often blamed us as the architects of our own trauma.
That’s not just my opinion, but the conclusive judgment of a devastating independent report issued last month following an extensive three-year inquiry into sexual exploitation and abuse in my home town stretching back to the 1970s.
The authors’ verdict could not have been more damning, concluding that generations of children had been subjected to unnecessary suffering because of the abject failures of West Mercia Police. In some cases, like that of 16-year-old Lucy Lowe, victims were murdered by their abusers.
Echoing conclusions drawn by investigations into similar scandals in Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxford, the report laid bare the scale of systemic failures, highlighting how many perpetrators — predominantly Asian men — were not investigated because of nervousness about appearing racist.
Samantha pictured in 2008. She writes of her ordeal: ‘Of course, I had tried to seek help. I eventually reported my abuse and was interviewed by a police child sexual exploitation team. But they did absolutely nothing to bring my abusers to justice…’
Meanwhile, the largely working-class white victims were treated as no-hope cases who were destined to fall into a life of crime, branded ‘troublemakers’ or even ‘child prostitutes’ by police. Teachers and social workers were found to have been actively dissuaded from reporting abuse, while offenders were ’emboldened’ as police efforts to stop them were scaled down ‘to virtual zero’.
It is little wonder the report has been greeted with widespread fury and disgust. My reaction was one of bittersweet vindication — and an anger that reduced me to tears.
Much of the inquiry focused on gang-related cases but many — as I experienced — were perpetrated by individual men.
And while my case was not one of those featured in the report, I am one of hundreds of victims of child sexual abuse and grooming in Telford whose suffering was brushed under the carpet as part of a deeply engrained cover-up culture.
Even now, it is hard to confront the scale of abuse that took place in the leafy Shropshire town I once called home. While incidents of child sexual abuse number 7.9 per 10,000 nationwide, in Telford that figure jumps to 16.4. And behind those numbers are real children, many young girls like the one I was 15 years ago: a small child whose shoulder-length brown hair, blunt fringe and tanned skin made my family joke that I looked like the cartoon adventurer Dora The Explorer.
We had moved to Shropshire when I was young. But things became very difficult when my father died soon after I turned five.
Nonetheless I was a confident child, and an eager to please perfectionist. Did my first abuser — who I have chosen not to identify — see this as a targetable weakness?
She says of the report: ‘My reaction was one of bittersweet vindication — and an anger that reduced me to tears…’
I will never know. But what I do know is that he was a trusted grown-up with a close relationship to my family, which gave him no shortage of access, while my father’s death meant that I looked to him as a paternal figure.
It took a long time for me to realise that our ‘special relationship’ was inappropriate and exploitative.
That dawning realisation — many years on — was horrifying, and the only way I could cope with it was to tuck it away in a box in a dark recess of my brain. Meanwhile, on the outside I over-compensated for what I saw as my shortcomings by determinedly trying to be the best at everything.
But really, I was a tumult of emotions and unaddressed trauma.
As I got older, that trauma started to bubble over into my day-to-day life. When you’re abused from an early age, you lack an understanding of what constitutes a healthy adult relationship. By the age of 14 I had managed to distance myself from my first abuser, but I had since embarked on a series of damaging interactions with other men.
I met many of them online where, emboldened by the relative anonymity of the internet, they persuaded me into doing things I am still too ashamed to describe today. The worst part was that in some horrible, twisted way, it all made me feel I was worth something.
Some of these interactions also spilled over into real life. And at 15 I was deliberately putting myself in dangerous situations.
I would hitch-hike, or sit on roundabouts in the small hours, walking the streets in areas I knew to be unsafe. On one occasion, I got chatting to a man in a park at midnight and let him take me for a ride in his van. I no longer cared if I emerged unscathed — my life was in total freefall.
It was around this time that I first came into contact with the police, to report a sexual assault. Two detectives from West Mercia’s child sexual exploitation team came to visit me and, as they asked their various questions, the story of my previous childhood abuse came tumbling out.
Instantly I could sense walls coming up in front of me.
Samantha explained: ‘We had moved to Shropshire when I was young. But things became very difficult when my father died soon after I turned five’
Today, of course, we know there was a long-standing climate of suspicion and hostility in Telford towards sex abuse victims. But I didn’t realise that back then.
Had I consented to sexual activity at any point, they asked me. How could I have? I was underage!
But it was my behaviour, not that of my abusers, that was put under the microscope. I went through a year of psychiatric evaluations, after which one detective delivered the news that, alongside depression and anxiety, the child psychologist had identified a condition in me which could potentially alter the way my case was handled.
I was never told what the affliction was but, to me, the implication was clear — that it was a form of weakness that could impact the credibility of my story. It was a message that was rubber-stamped by my social worker at the time, who told me I had to take responsibility for the situation I was in.
Eighteen months after I was first interviewed, I was told that ‘no further action’ was being taken against my abuser. I was hardly surprised, but it did not lessen my devastation — and things quickly worsened.
By the age of 16 I found I was legally homeless following a breakdown in family relationships, and I ended up bouncing around various different children’s homes.
I was, however, fortunate enough to attend a school that did everything in its power to help me succeed in spite of my personal hardships. Kind teachers allowed me to use the school showers and took my laundry to their own homes to be washed.
When I wasn’t there, I studied for my A-levels in fast food restaurants and the local library, and worked three jobs to make ends meet.
She writes: ‘If you had asked me a few years back where I thought I would be in 2022 I would have said six feet under. Instead, I am now — aged 20 — comfortably housed, at university studying law, and nurturing hopes and prospects for the future. I wish nothing less for every other victim in Telford…’
Unbeknown to me, around that time there were growing calls for an investigation into grooming and abuse in Telford, following newspaper reports in 2018 suggesting nearly 1,000 children could have suffered. But police superintendent Tom Harding pushed back, saying there was not a discernible problem and that the number of victims had been ‘sensationalised’.
It was only in 2019 that I first started to realise the truth, when I clicked by chance onto a three-part drama series called Three Girls on BBC iPlayer that had been released two years earlier.
I had no idea that it was based on the true stories of victims of abuse in Rochdale, but as the action unfolded on screen I started to tremble in recognition.
I had never been naive enough to think that my experience was completely isolated, but it had not occurred to me that it was a common thread binding together countless children. Last month’s report at last exposed the heinous short-sightedness and arrogance of the authorities in Telford which refused to act, focusing on self-preservation rather than protecting the vulnerable.
Indeed, the report states in no uncertain terms that there was a reluctance by police to investigate the predominantly Asian offenders because they feared being accused of racism.
While this was not always relevant to my experience — some of my abusers were Asian, some weren’t — it underlines the general reluctance to believe victims.
And despite bleating apologies by West Mercia Police, who said their actions had fallen ‘far short’ of the standards expected of them, I worry that victims will continue to be ignored and undermined.
It is all too apparent that a ‘woke creep’ has overrun much of public life — from schools to the NHS and, of course, the police — and it strikes me that the crippling fear of being seen as prejudiced towards any minority is increasingly taking precedence over what really matters to the majority of people.
Certainly, I struggle with the idea that the police have truly learned from their mistakes — especially given my own recent experience.
Last month, I went on GB News to talk about the abuse I experienced in Telford. The following day, as I was making lunch, I was startled by a heavy thumping on my front door. Opening it, I found two male police officers, who asked my name and then informed me that they had a ‘duty’ to follow up the claims of abuse that I had made during my television appearance.
Ostensibly, the police were there to help me, I suppose. But why had it taken my appearance on national television for my claims finally to be taken seriously?
Samantha explains: ‘It was only in 2019 that I first started to realise the truth, when I clicked by chance onto a three-part drama series called Three Girls on BBC iPlayer…’
It was a reminder for me that, in many instances, the police still have a long way to go when it comes to dealing with victims of child sexual abuse.
It is one reason I have chosen to waive my anonymity and speak out. I am naturally a very private person, and I still carry a huge burden of shame about what I went through. But I am writing this because there are so many children out there who don’t have the privilege of having their voices heard.
I am one of the lucky ones.
If you had asked me a few years back where I thought I would be in 2022 I would have said six feet under. Instead, I am now — aged 20 — comfortably housed, at university studying law, and nurturing hopes and prospects for the future. I wish nothing less for every other victim in Telford.
But let’s be clear: that will not happen until there is radical institutional change.
Months ago, I read one of my old school reports, written when I was around seven. It said I was intelligent but I needed to know when to ask for help if I was struggling.
Little did my teacher know how true that was — but perhaps far more important is for children to know that when you ask for help, those in charge will provide it.