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Health worker who exposed Rochdale CSE ‘vindicated’ in new report

Sara Rowbotham, part of the Rochdale Crisis Intervention Team which uncovered the Rochdale child sex abuse ring and helped bring the perpetrators to court, has been ‘rightfully vindicated’ following the latest publication in a series of reports into non-recent child exploitation.

15/01/24

Health worker who exposed Rochdale CSE ‘vindicated’ in new report

The independent assurance review on historical child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Rochdale has today [15 January 2024] revealed significant evidence pointing to widespread organized sexual exploitation of children in Rochdale between 2004 and 2012.

The review considered the allegations made in the BBC documentary Betrayed Girls about child sexual exploitation in Rochdale and the wider Manchester region. It also looked at the findings from Sara Rowbotham, Co-ordinator of the Crisis Intervention Team in Rochdale set up in 2002 to provide sexual health advice and support to young people, and Maggie Oliver, former Greater Manchester Police (GMP) Detective Constable.

The review, which was commissioned by the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, shortly after taking office in 2017. It was undertaken by child protection specialist Malcolm Newsam CBE and former senior police officer Gary Ridgway, who led previous assurance reviews of Operation Augusta, and the review into historic safeguarding practices in Oldham. It highlights shortcomings on the part of statutory agencies during that period in responding appropriately to the issue.

“During the period covered by this review, GMP and Rochdale Council failed to prioritise the protection of children who were being sexually exploited by a significant number of men within the Rochdale area,” Malcolm Newsam, lead author, said. “We have also concluded that Sara Rowbotham was unfairly criticised by the two serious case reviews for not having appropriately referred children at risk of exploitation.

“For several years, Sara Rowbotham and her colleagues were lone voices in raising concerns about the sexual exploitation and abuse of these children. Both GMP and Rochdale Council failed to respond appropriately to these concerns, and it has been a gross misrepresentation to suggest that the Crisis Intervention Team in some way was complicit with this failure and to tarnish the reputation of this small group of professionals.

“Successive police operations were launched over this period, but these were insufficiently resourced to match the scale of the widespread organised exploitation within the area. Consequently, children were left at risk and many of their abusers to this day have not been apprehended.”

The review covers the period from 2004 to 2013 and considers how specific concerns in respect of child sexual exploitation were handled by the statutory agencies at the time. The report details how the emerging threat of child sexual exploitation was not addressed between 2004 and 2007.

In 2007, due to escalating concerns, the Crisis Intervention Team alerted GMP and Rochdale Council to the presence of an alleged organised crime group believed to be dealing in child sexual exploitation in Rochdale and using these children to facilitate the gang’s illicit dealing in Class A drugs. The Crisis Intervention Team identified at least 11 children they believed had been sexually exploited by this gang of Asian men.

The review criticised the fact that GMP and Rochdale Council chose not to progress any investigation into these men, concluding that this was a serious failure to protect these children. Although a small-scale police investigation started in 2007, run by a single detective, this did not look at the organised crime groups that were suspected to be exploiting children, and the investigation resulted in no charges or convictions.

In 2008, a child was arrested on suspicion of causing criminal damage at a takeaway in Rochdale. Following her arrest this child disclosed that she had been raped and sexually assaulted by staff at the takeaway restaurant in Rochdale. From August 2008 to July 2009, the first investigation failed to bring forward any charges. The report concludes that this investigation identified widespread sexual exploitation of many vulnerable children by at least 30 adult perpetrators. This was a complex inquiry and needed to be resourced accordingly, but the additional resources were not provided.

Consequently, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) determined that the main victim was an unreliable witness and the available forensic evidence was problematic. Both the CPS and GMP apologised for this failure in 2012, after the conviction of the Operation Span defendants.

However, the review team discovered that another child had also given evidence that she had been sexually exploited at the same venues. She had also provided a statement setting out how she had been a witness to the exploitation of other children by the same men. The detective responsible for investigating her crime failed to focus on her disclosure and as a result insufficient effort was put into identifying the man who raped her. The review states that had this investigation been sufficiently resourced and her complaints pursued with the rigour required it may have strengthened the evidence to proceed with the prosecution.

It was not until December 2010 that these matters were re-investigated by Operation Span leading to the conviction of nine men in May 2012. This operation was described at the time by GMP as “comprehensive and effective, mitigating threat risk and harm”. However, the report has found that Operation Span was a relatively limited offender-focused investigation that primarily addressed a small number of perpetrators who had not been prosecuted following the earlier disclosures in 2008.

The review has also found that during this operation numerous crimes were reported by a child victim, whom the report calls ‘Amber’, who disclosed that she had been a victim of sexual exploitation and violent abuse for several years. She was formally designated a victim under Operation Span, but these crimes were not recorded by GMP – even though she had provided significant evidence over a six-month period. The report concludes that these perpetrators were potentially left to continue their abuse of other children.

In December 2011, the CPS in consultation with GMP, decided to name Amber as a co-conspirator in the sexual exploitation of other children and included her name on the indictment for the trial. This was a legal tactical decision by the prosecution to ensure the jury heard Amber’s critical evidence to the case. Amber was never informed of this decision and was unable to defend herself against these allegations which she has always denied. No consideration was given to how the decision would affect Amber personally or what the repercussions of the decision might be for her family.

By naming her as a co-conspirator, the review team believe there was a foreseeable risk to her and her family’s personal safety that was either ignored or not considered. The review team regard this failure to protect a vulnerable victim as deplorable.

In total, the review considered the cases of 111 children for whom information was held on file during this time and, for each child, looked at whether there was evidence they were being sexually exploited, and whether any abuse was appropriately addressed by agencies including GMP and Rochdale Council. The review found there was a significant probability that 74 of these children were being sexually exploited at that time, and in 48 of those cases, there were serious failures to protect the child.

The review found that the two serious case overview reports published by Rochdale Local Safeguarding Childrens Board in 2013 explicitly criticised Sara Rowbotham and the Crisis Intervention Team for not following child protection procedures and for not communicating appropriately with other agencies. However, this review has established that, by October 2012, the multi-agency CSE strategy group chaired by GMP was aware of approximately 127 potential victims referred by the Crisis Intervention Team to children’s social care that had not been acted on over the years. This figure later grew to 260 potential victims. This information was clear to all the partners three months before the publication of the serious case review overview reports in December 2013. In contrast, the review has found compelling evidence to support the view that the Crisis Intervention Team was sharing explicit information with the authorities on the exploitation of multiple children.

The terms of reference for this review did not extend beyond December 2013. However, in November 2023 GMP provided the review team with a schedule of convictions resulting from the three major operations that occurred after the conclusion of Operation Span. These were Operation Routh, Operation Doublet and Operation Lytton. In total 30 men had been convicted, and most received lengthy prison sentences. This is a significant number of successful convictions and the report acknowledges the considerable amount of effort that was dedicated to achieving these successful convictions.

However, the review team has noted that these trials only included 13 children in total, and just six of these were previously known to the Crisis Intervention Team and are included in the 74 children believed by the review team to have been sexually exploited, a very small proportion of the children who were known to be sexually exploited in Rochdale over the period the review has covered.

“This report is hard to read,” Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham said. “It gives a detailed and distressing account of how many young people were so seriously failed. That said, it fulfils the purpose of why I set up this review in the first place. It is only by facing up fully and unflinchingly to what happened that we can be sure of bringing the whole system culture change needed when it comes to protecting children from abuse.

“I would like to thank those who have had the courage to come forward and share what happened to them. We know how difficult it must have been and still is. We are sorry that you were so badly failed by the system that should have protected you. I would also like to praise those who blew the whistle on their behalf, particularly Sara Rowbotham and Maggie Oliver, and for the support they have provided to them ever since. That took huge courage and determination and we thank them for it. The Deputy Mayor and I will personally ensure that support continues to be in place for all the victims of this appalling abuse and the organisations who support them.”

This review is the third of four which will be undertaken by Malcolm Newsam and Gary Ridgway. The first considered Operation Augusta and the premature death of 15-year-old Victoria Agoglia. The second covered historic child sexual exploitation in Oldham.

The fourth workstream – due to report in the Summer – will consider current practice across Greater Manchester to address the risk of child sexual exploitation, and an analysis of the current processes in place under Greater Manchester Complex Safeguarding Hub. It will also look at the GMP Operations to tackle CSE that have happened more recently: Operation Green Jacket, Operation Bernice, Operation Sherwood and Operation Exmoor.

Just last year, an Ofsted report regarding Rochdale Council - including the Complex Safeguarding Hub - was published and confirmed that ‘children at risk receive an effective response from the dedicated Sunrise team’.

Rochdale Council leader Councillor Neil Emmott said: “As the current leader of Rochdale Council I want to repeat the apology we have made previously but also to reassure the public that far more rigorous practices are in place today to protect our children. Rochdale was already investigating these historical cases when the Mayor’s review began in 2017 and a number are still ongoing and we want to ensure the perpetrators of these crimes are brought to justice. We will be ever vigilant in our efforts to ensure these awful failures don’t happen again and that children will be protected.

“Every Ofsted inspection since 2014 has concluded that Rochdale responds to reports of child sexual exploitation effectively through our dedicated multi-agency Sunrise Team. We have offered and continue to offer support to those survivors of child sexual exploitation in Rochdale.”

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