To begin with, the task in hand was straightforward, businesslike, almost formulaic. Professor Alexis Jay had investigated complex cases of child sexual exploitation before. She knew the form. When Rotherham council called her in to conduct an inquiry into its own troubling record, she had a clear idea of how to "come at" it. Minutes, notes, background reading… the necessary apparatus of research was set in motion.
It was when she started to read the case files and talk to people that her professional detachment was shaken. Something unimaginably evil was unfolding and on a scale that defied belief. Pages and pages of terrible stories from young girls who had been trafficked and raped by gangs of mainly Asian men over many years; of parents at their wits' end while police and social services looked the other way.
"The utter brutality is what shocked me most," she says. "It is really hard to describe it – the horrible nature of the sexual acts and the brutality of the controls these girls were subjected to. There was a vast amount of truly horrific material. I was taken aback at how callous, how violent, the operations were. These were girls of 11 and 12. They were children. The violence was worst. Petrol dousing was used as a form of intimidation. Oral and anal sex were so often a means of control and punishment. It was truly frightening that people in our country could be doing that."