South Yorkshire 'grooming victims' to sue Rotherham Council
Four women are set to sue Rotherham Council for "systematic failures to protect them from sexual abuse by predatory men" when they were children.
The legal action is being taken after MPs said in July the authority had "failed in its duty of care".
The announcement comes as The Times published one of the women's account of being allowed contact with a suspected child abuser while in care.
South Yorkshire Police said the article could "undermine" ongoing inquiries.
Lawyer David Greenwood, who is acting for some of the alleged victims, said: "It is very likely that my clients will be taking legal action against Rotherham Council and potentially the police for failing to protect them over a long period of time.
"Inaction by social services and the police has left hundreds of young women, or teenagers, open to child sexual exploitation.
"It is important to remember that at the time of the abuse they were children under the age of 16 and could not legally consent.
"The [Home Affairs Committee] report noted part of the problem is that adults may misunderstand the grooming process and assume that the young person was a willing participant in a relationship, rather than the victim of sexual abuse."
Suspected abuse ring
Speaking to The Times, one of the women, now in her 20s, said she began a relationship with a 24-year-old man, who had served two prison sentences for violent offences, in 1999, when she was 14.
It is understood the man twice made the girl pregnant.
The newspaper said social services became aware before the relationship ended that the man was part of a ring of men suspected of abusing more than 40 young teenagers in Rotherham.
The article states that by June 2000, both police and social services knew the teenager, who had been placed in emergency foster care, was in a sexual relationship with the man.
However, despite this knowledge the authorities continued to allow contact between the pair, it said.
Speaking to the newspaper, the woman said: "My parents tried everything to keep [the man] away from me, but I thought I was in love with him.
"When I went into care I stopped running away because I didn't need to any more. Social services let me see him all the time."
The force's Police and Crime Commissioner Shaun Wright said he was "deeply concerned" by the story.
South Yorkshire Police criticised The Times for publishing the article, saying: "South Yorkshire Police deeply regrets the decision by The Times newspaper to publish an article about an on-going, complex and highly sensitive investigation into matters of historic child sexual exploitation.
"The Times newspaper contacted South Yorkshire Police on Monday, 19 August, announcing its intention to publish an article about these issues. In response, the force informed the newspaper that any such publication could seriously undermine and, at worst, cause fatal damage to this inquiry."
'Serious and distressing'
The Times said it published the story despite South Yorkshire Police's request because it "wants to see justice for child sex exploitation victims".
It said it chose to tell the girl's story after she contacted one of its reporters, in the hope it would encourage others to come forward and because it felt "not enough has yet been done" by police.
Rotherham MP Sarah Champion described the allegations in the article as "serious and distressing".
She said she would be carrying out a cross-party inquiry in Parliament in the autumn in order to "make sure current legislation protects children from abuse as fully as possible".
Mr Wright, who was cabinet member for children's and young persons' services in Rotherham between 2005 and 2010, said: "The allegations made in The Times newspaper about the way in which various agencies failed to adequately combat child sexual exploitation and protect vulnerable victims 14 years ago concern me deeply.
"I will be seeking assurances from the chief constable and other agencies that all allegations of such crimes are thoroughly investigated, that victims are fully supported and that this process is underpinned by the most robust and thorough processes and policies."
Rotherham Council said: "The council wishes to support South Yorkshire Police and not potentially compromise this process.
"As such we will not be making further comments on the article without further consultation with our police colleagues."
Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said he planned to write to Rotherham Council's leader Roger Stone and chief executive Martin Kimber to ask what progress had been made since the committee's report was published in June.
He said: "What I hope [the article] has done and I hope what our recommendations have done is that they have woken up local authorities to the importance of acting on information they receive.
"It's very simple, if a 24-year-old man is in a relationship with a girl under the age of 16 this is a criminal act and they need to report it.
"They do not need to stand by and just accept it because in their view it is being done willingly. The law is the law and therefore it needs to be enforced."