The Betrayed Girls

The documentary aired on BBC One last week and documents the experiences of the professionals and victims involved in the Rochdale sex abuse investigations.

The documentary The Betrayed Girls aired on BBC One last week and documents the experiences of the professionals and victims involved in the Rochdale sex abuse investigations, on which the recent BBC programme Three Girls was based.

It begins by narrating that girls involved were systematically abused and no one dared to speak out. In fact, we hear in the rest of the documentary how some professionals did speak out, but were similarly systematically ignored.

Spotting the signs and reporting the abuse

In 2003, Sara Rowbotham, the sexual health worker from Rochdale’s Crisis Intervention Team (C.I.T) (pictured above) explained that most mornings, there would be young girls outside the centre waiting for it to open after being out all night; victims as young as 12 would tell her about being at parties with older men where they were given alcohol and cigarettes and then forced into having sex.

Sara said she wrote numerous letters to police and social services at the time, but even after a dozen attempted referrals in the first year of the C.I.T being open, nothing was done.

It appears that even victims themselves had tried to report at this time too. For example the documentary mentions the letter written by Victoria Agoglia about her experiences of sexual exploitation, which was seen by police and social care in 2003. It appears this had little impact at the time, as two years later Victoria died from a heroin overdose.

Following Victoria’s death, Greater Manchester Police called in DC Maggie Oliver to do a scoping exercise on whether there was a systematic problem with sexual abuse in Rochdale. This led to Operation Augusta in 2004, which, within a couple of weeks had identified 17 child victims and numerous perpetrators.

In 2002, the same year that Safe and Sound was founded in Derby to protect children at risk of sexual exploitation, Ann Cryer, the then Labour MP for Keighley was confronted by a group of mothers who approached her with details of the abuse their daughters had suffered. It appeared that parents were also reporting the abuse and attempting to seek support for their children.

With frontline professionals, parents and young people themselves identifying and reporting the abuse to police and social care, it’s hard to believe the response was so insufficient.

Understanding of sexual consent and victim blaming

The mothers of the girls in Keighley were desperate to be taken seriously by the police. However, the police interpreted the sexual activity that had taken place as the girls having given their consent, even when they were under the influence of drugs and alcohol and despite being 12 and 13, and because of this they told the parents there was nothing they could do.

It’s shocking to think that the police and likely other services at the time had such an inadequate understanding of consent. They failed to take into account that the Sexual Offences Act states clearly that a child under 13 does not, under any circumstances, have the legal capacity to consent to any form of sexual activity. They also failed to take into account informed consent eg the capacity to be able to consent to sex which young girls under the influence of drugs and alcohol would not have been able to do. Lastly, the actual legal age of consent is 16. Sections 9-13 of the Sexual Offences Act clarify that any ‘sexual activity involving consenting children under 16 is unlawful’.

Cryer said that there was a similar response when speaking to social services – she was told that as the children weren’t in care, the issues raised were the responsibility of the children’s parents and there was nothing they could do. This contributed to many parents being blamed for what was happening to their children whilst feeling powerless to stop the abuse.

Faith in the criminal justice system

In 2004, the Operation Augusta report was finished. However, nothing was done with the report at the time. It was only in 2008, with an incident involving Girl A, who had previously been identified and referred by Sara and the C.I.T team that sparked a new investigation into on-street grooming in Rochdale.

Operation Span began in 2009, and in 2011 nine men were arrested in Rochdale, aged 22-59 on accounts of sexual assault, rape and trafficking. By this time, Sara and the C.I.T had contacted services 181 times to report the abuse.

In 2011, Chief Prosecutor for the case Nadir Afzal was shocked at hearing staff referring to girls involved as ‘prostitutes’. He responded by stating that children manipulated by adults, are not able to make informed choices. We occasionally come across incriminating language like this from professionals and it is always important to challenge this when it’s heard.

The victims being asked to testify in the case were still dealing with the trauma caused by years of abuse and knowing that they were not taken seriously by the authorities they reported this to. Now they were being asked to discuss their traumatic experiences all over again. Though DC Oliver was supportive, it seems as if they were never offered the skilled support of an Independent Sexual Violence Adviser. We would hope that this is now something that is available to more young victims involved in a criminal investigation, though we know it is not consistently offered to all young people in all areas.

Are we moving forwards?

The documentary ends by explaining that since Rochdale, there have been over 30 successful prosecutions of on-street grooming gangs in the U.K.  Police guidelines have changed to increase reporting, disrupt offender activity and improve safeguarding of children from grooming and other forms of CSE.  Greater Manchester Police said that they now have dedicated units and offer specialist training to deal with child sexual exploitation, and we know that many other forces have been doing the same.

However, whilst progress is being made, we recognise that there is still an ongoing need for dedicated training for services such as police, social care and health in recognising and responding to sexual violence, exploitation and abuse as well as understanding the emotional impact that abuse has on victims and how to support them.

We provide specialist training such as this to all agencies and services working with children and young people and those working with adults who have been affected by historic abuse.

You can support the work we do with children and young people at risk of and affected by sexual violence, exploitation and abuse by:

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