03/03/2015 12:46 EST | Updated 05/03/2015 05:59 EDT

Child sex abuse: U.K. proposes tougher penalties

The British government has unveiled tougher measures to combat child sexual abuse after a series of scathing reports over recent months revealed widespread exploitation of girls in several areas across England.

Along with ordering police to treat child sexual abuse as a national threat, the new proposals make it a criminal offence to "wilfully neglect" victims and people at risk.

They include jail terms of up to five years for teachers, counsellors and social workers who fail to protect children, as well as unlimited fines for individuals and organizations proven to have turned a blind eye to child sexual abuse.

"We owe it to our children, and to the children who survive horrific sexual abuse, to do better and ensure the mistakes of the past are never repeated again," Prime Minister David Cameron said  in a statement posted on his website.

The new measures were announced ahead of a summit on child sexual exploitation held at Downing Street on Tuesday.

The summit was held just hours after a report was released by the Oxfordshire Child Safeguarding Board which found that nearly 400 girls may have suffered "indescribably awful" sexual abuse across the region over 16 years.

The Oxfordshire report is just the latest in a series that have highlighted child sexual abuse in various towns across England.

One of the most shocking, released in the summer of 2014, found that about 1,400 girls had been sexually abused in the small Yorkshire town of Rotherham from 1997 to 2013.  

In most cases, the girls, some as young as 11, were targeted by gangs of Pakistani-heritage men who gave them drugs and alcohol. The report included horrific stories of physical and sexual abuse, including examples of girls being doused in gasoline and threatened with being set on fire.

Other victims were forced to witness violent rapes of other girls along with being raped themselves.

Both reports found that police and social workers failed to protect the children, many of whom were in social care.

The reports found that authorities often blamed the victims for their own abuse and neglected the serious nature of their claims.

"The overall problem was not grasping the nature of the abuse — the grooming, the pull from home, the erosion of consent, the inability to escape and the sheer horror of what the girls were going through — but of seeing it as something done more voluntarily.

"Something that the girls did as opposed to something done to them," the Oxfordshire report said.

The government says the new measures are designed to prevent similar neglect by people responsible for protecting children.

"We have all been appalled at the abuse … Children were ignored, sometimes even blamed, and issues were swept under the carpet," Cameron’s statement said. "The culture of denial which let them down so badly must be eradicated."

Some critics argue the new proposals don’t go far enough.

They say that rather than making a criminal offence to "wilfully neglect" victims, the government should introduce legislation requiring mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse, arguing that wilful neglect is too hard to prove.

Still, some victims say that after years of being ignored by authorities, they are relieved the government is taking action.

"It’s a little bit of hope," said Emma Jackson (not her real name), whose teenage years were marred by brutal sexual abuse at the hands of dozens of men in Rotherham. "We are finally moving forward."