Howard Woolfenden recruited for £85,000 per year role, despite being part of team that ‘closed group rescuing young girls’
Birmingham City Council has controversially recruited a child protection boss from scandal-hit Rotherham Council – where he was linked to the closure of a group rescuing sexually exploited young girls.
Howard Woolfenden joined the authority as an £85,000 per year assistant director last March and is now leading the council’s work to protect young victims from grooming gangs.
Yet he was part of the Rotherham Council management team collectively heavily criticised last week for failing child sexual exploitation (CSE) victims and for closing the pioneering group Risky Business – described as ‘the only lifeline’ for abused girls in the town.
The council-run outreach group offered practical support and advice to the terrified youngsters, many from the care system, as well as collecting details of abusers – the majority, Asian Pakistani men – and keeping them on a confidential database.
Yet in April 2011 the group was suddenly shut down by Rotherham Council where Mr Woolfenden was director of safeguarding children and families at the time. He was then made director of safeguarding and corporate parenting and oversaw the creation of Risky Business’ replacement, an inhouse council team. He resigned in August 2012 from the authority where he had worked for two years.
This week the entire leadership of Rotherham Council stood down after a damning report into the town’s CSE scandal by Louise Casey, director-general for troubled families at the government’s Communities Department.
The Mail has learned that Mr Woolfenden was interviewed as part of her investigation.
Her report found Rotherham Council was ‘not fit for purpose’ and still ‘in denial’ about the 1,400 young girls abused there over 16 years.
Ms Casey highlighted and praised the work of Risky Business and said staff had been ignored and even harassed for highlighting ‘uncomfortable truths’ about abusers.
She said: “Child abuse and exploitation happens all over the country, but Rotherham is different in that it (the council) was repeatedly told by its own youth service what was happening and it chose, not only to not act, but to close that service down. This is important because it points to how it has dealt with uncomfortable truths put before it.”
Jayne Senior was the former manager of Risky Business, from 1999 to 2011. She told the Birmingham Mail: “Howard Woolfenden was under no illusion about the extent of the CSE problem in Rotherham when he was there, the huge number of girls being sexually exploited, the horror stories. He spent a lot of time going through our database about the girls and the abusers.
“Risky Business was a lifeline to the girls and on some occasions our staffs’ intervention, by going that extra mile, saved lives.
“We removed girls from situations, protected them and would go out late at night to deal with hospital visits when the girls had been hurt.”
Yet the axe fell on April 8 in 2011 when Risky Business was told it was being closed and merged into the council’s social care department. Council officials took possession of the group’s database of victims and offenders, which showed that almost all of the abusers were Asian Pakistani men. The database has subsequently gone missing from the authority.
On April 7, 2011, the Risky Business staff team attended a conference at which Howard Woolfenden and his boss Joyce Thacker and many other child protection professionals were present.
Ms Thacker told all present that the council was securing funding for Risky Business for at least the following two years.
The next day, without warning, Risky Business was closed down.
Mr Woolfenden was part of the management team Risky Business sat under. He was the director of safeguarding and corporate parenting, which then looked to set up a new internal CSE team involving social workers.
Meanwhile, a member of the Rotherham Local Safeguarding Children’s Board recalled meetings where Risky Business was discussed and where Mr Woolfenden raised fears the offender intelligence could cause problems for the council, because of the ethnicity link. They told the Mail: “I just couldn’t understand this as we were talking about criminals and terrible crimes that had been committed rather than saving face.”
In August 2012 Mr Woolfenden resigned from Rotherham after accepting a post at Oxfordshire County Council. Oxford later cancelled his appointment before he started. No explanation for the decision was made public.
In February 2013 he was appointed director of Lakes Safeguarding Consultancy Ltd.
Then in March last year he joined Birmingham City Council and from July last year he became assistant director of integrated services and is believed to be earning upwards of £85,000 per year.
He set up MASH (Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub) last summer to help coordinateCSE and other child protection referrals, the council confirmed.
The Mail spoke to Mr Woolfenden on the phone and stated that he had worked at Rotherham and had played an instrumental role in closing Risky Business and he answered ‘yes, yes’. When asked to comment further on how he had known about the true extent of CSE and ethnicity of almost all the offenders and criticism of his role, he said: “I don’t think it’s quite the right time to talk about this at the moment. I need to speak to my press team.’’
The Mail repeatedly asked Rotherham Council for any official documentation showing who made the decision to close Risky Business and also submitted a Freedom of Information request. A spokeswoman said that despite numerous searches, the council could find no documents or recorded information about who took the decision to close the group and when. The decision should have gone to the council’s Cabinet, been discussed and the outcome minuted, but the authority can find no record of that.
In September Shaun Wright resigned as South Yorkshire Police and crime commissioner, three weeks after a damning report written by Prof Alexis Jay revealed the full scale of child sex abuse in Rotherham, with up to 1,400 victims.
Prof Jay’s report dedicated a whole chapter to Risky Business and praised its work, saying it was often the only agency to take victims seriously but was ‘too often seen as something of a nuisance, particularly by children’s social care’.
WHAT THE COUNCIL SAYS
Peter Hay, Birmingham City Council’s Strategic Director for People, said: “All necessary checks are carried out before anyone is employed by Birmingham City Council and we have been aware of Howard’s previous role in Rotherham.
“Howard brings a wealth of relevant experience to Birmingham and we are confident that he is the right person for the job. He has been instrumental in setting up the multi-agency safeguarding hub which has just this week received very positive comments on progress from Ofsted”.