THE HEAD of Oxfordshire County Council has apologised for not stopping the abuse of vulnerable girls in its care.

Joanna Simons, chief executive since 2005, said it was “beyond comprehension” an organised gang was acting on the scale it was.

The Old Bailey trial heard one social worker claim it was the “general consensus” amongst staff at a children’s home that one of the victims was being groomed.

And a school supporter worker also told the court nine out of 10 social workers knew what was going on.

But Miss Simons told The Oxford Mail: “It is beyond comprehension what these men have done. Everybody has been deeply shocked and affected by it.

“I would like to pay tribute too the girls in courage in giving evidence. I would also like to say sorry we did not stop it sooner.”

She said social workers reported anything suspicious to police. But she said the gangs gave the youngsters mobile phones and encouraged them to be secretive. And she said the girls were “conditioned” not to talk to the authorities or their families about the abuse.

She said: “It’s almost like bewitching them. Putting them under their spell. They don’t see themselves as victims.

“As soon as we suspected there was something big going on we took immediate action.”

The chief executive insisted social workers had acted upon concerns.

She said: “There was huge concern among social workers about these girls and this is reflected in the fact that a lot of action was taken before Operation Bullfinch.

“Girls were sent to secure units and out of county placements, staff followed girls and tried hard to get them to speak and took away their mobile phones.

“However we did not understand the grooming process in the same way that we do now or that there was a gang in operation. We are sorry we were not able to act sooner.”

Simons, who earns £182,431 a year, said previously social workers had usually focused only on the families.

She said: “In this case it’s not the parents, they are out of their minds with worry, it’s these unknown strangers who have hooked them into something very different.

“One of the big things we have learnt is social workers have to be more like detectives and detectives have to be more like social workers.”

When asked if how she felt that this had happened when she was in charge, she said: “It is the worst thing I have ever seen in over 30 years in local government.

“We are all deeply affected by this and we are incredibly sorry we did not stop it sooner. Everybody feels responsibility for this.”

She declined to comment on whether she had considered resigning.

And she said there would now be a serious case review, adding: “We will absolutely be implementing any recommendations that come out if it.”

The council head said about 2,500 staff, including social workers, teachers and health workers, had been trained to spot the signs of sexual exploitation.

She added: “We are fighting a war against child abusers but the terms of engagement have changed, we are determined now to tackle this.”