THE head of children’s services at Oxfordshire County Council said his department has seen a “top-to-bottom change” after Operation Bullfinch.

Director Jim Leivers said the council has spent almost three years working with the police, schools, and other agencies to improve how child abuse is dealt with.

He said it has also tried to change “the culture and belief systems” that caused adults to disbelieve the girls’ allegations when they first came forward.

Mr Leivers told the Oxford Mail that young people in the county are now “safer than they have ever been before” – but admitted he could not guarantee similar abuse could never happen again.

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He said the council first recognised there were problems a year before the Bullfinch trial at the Old Bailey in May 2013.

He added: “We needed to change not just our practices, but the way we worked with other organisations.

“We needed to begin to change the culture and belief systems that we had, so we had a top to bottom change that we needed to make.

“And during that period of time we’ve committed ourselves both resource-wise and priority-wise to actually deliver those things in a different way.”

He said that about £8m has been spent by the council to address the issue, which it used to set up the Kingfisher Unit and “a multi-agency safeguarding hub” with Thames Valley Police.

Mr Leivers said: “So for the first time [the hub] it brings together information and intelligence from the police, the local authority and others around child protection issues, and especially around children who are at risk.

“It ensures that you are getting a much quicker response and a more detailed response to those issues.”

He added that after setting up new groups to tackle the problem, the second task was changing the way child sex exploitation is understood.

Mr Leivers said: “We have put about 7,500 staff – that’s nurses, teachers, social workers, police officers – through a training programme that is very much about raising the awareness of risk and looking at the ways we can work with children who have been, or are, at risk of sexual exploitation.

“That professional practice is also about looking at the ways you can deal with things differently – you actually start from the base point of believing the child.

“I think if you go back 10 years what you can see is the local authority, health, police, finding it difficult to have that belief.

“It would see youngsters very much as making lifestyle choices, we were still using the term child prostitute that is now about to be outlawed in law.

“We saw this very much as young people who were uncooperative, who were very challenging, who continued to run away from children’s homes.

“What we didn’t see was that these children were being groomed, were being brainwashed by the men who abused them.

He added: “They saw these men as their friends, they saw them as boyfriends, they saw them as individuals who they should protect.

“Either through fear and intimidation, or through a belief system that was just skewed.

“And again, what we’ve tried to do is to turn that around.”

Community has a role to play in stopping abuse.

CHILDREN’S services boss Jim Leivers said local communities have a role to play in looking out for child sexual exploitation.

The Oxfordshire County Council director said it was important not to “exaggerate the problem” but that people needed to be aware of the risks to vulnerable children.

He said: “There’s a big issue around what the community’s role in this is. How do you engage local communities in protecting children?

“We’ve had a degree of success with that, working with local people to actually look out for kids.”

He added: “It’s just about raising the awareness of people within communities that if you see a 13-year-old girl, or a group of 13-year-old girls, out with groups of older men, then the light’s got to come on.

“You have got to say ‘is that normal, is that reasonable, is that something that we should try and do something about?’ “It’s about everybody being aware that children, vulnerable children in particular, are at risk of exploitation.”

Mr Leivers added: “We are not talking about any child that goes out at night being at risk of being sexually exploited and abused, because that isn’t the case.

“But it is saying that in vulnerable parts of our communities, children are at risk.

“And it’s about having some sense about that and about local communities looking out for kids, seeing kids as very much children and very much as vulnerable, rather than mini adults.”