‘Serious failings’ by police and council highlighted in Rochdale CSE report

An independent review into child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Rochdale has found as many as 48 girls were “seriously failed” by Rochdale Borough Council and Greater Manchester Police (GMP) in being protected.

Jan 15, 2024
By Paul Jacques

Published on Monday (January 15), ‘The review into Operation Span and the investigation of non-recent child sexual exploitation in Rochdale’ found “compelling evidence of widespread organised sexual exploitation of children” within Rochdale from 2004 to 2012, and failures by statutory agencies at the time to respond appropriately.

GMP Chief Constable Stephen Watson said it remains “a matter of profound regret” that victims of child sexual exploitation in Rochdale in the early 2000s were failed by the force.

Commissioned by the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, the review was undertaken by child protection specialist Malcolm Newsam CBE and former senior police officer Gary Ridgway, who led the assurance review of Operation Augusta, published in 2020, and the review into historical safeguarding practices in Oldham, published in 2022.

The review considered the allegations made in the BBC documentary Betrayed Girls about CSE in Greater Manchester, including Rochdale, and by Sara Rowbotham, the 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, a former GMP detective constable.

The report details how the emerging threat of CSE 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 CSE 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 it believed had been sexually exploited by this gang of Asian men.

“GMP and Rochdale Council chose not to progress any investigation into these men,” says the review and concludes 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, the review found.

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,” it added.

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. It adds 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, ‘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. The review team said 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,” the report said.

“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 said it believes there was a foreseeable risk to her and her family’s personal safety that was either ignored or not considered. The review team regarded 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”.

It also found that lessons from the tragic death of Victoria Agoglia in 2003 and from Operation Augusta, which ended in 2005 and were related to offending that took place in Manchester, were not followed through by GMP. CSE continued to be treated as a low priority and under-resourced by GMP.

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,” said the review team.

However, it has noted that these trials included only 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.

Mr Newsam, lead author, said: “This review was initiated following the serious allegations made by both Maggie Oliver and Sara Rowbotham and we have found through this review their allegations to be substantiated.

“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. 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.”

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

The fourth workstream will consider current practice across Greater Manchester to address the risk of CSE, 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. Now that the part 3 report has been published, the review team can focus on completing part 4 which we hope will be ready by the summer at the latest.

In response to the report, Mr Burnham said: “This report is hard to read. 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.

“I decided to set up this review shortly after taking office in 2017 on the back of the serious allegation that lessons from failings in Manchester in the early 2000s, which led to the tragic death of Victoria Agoglia, were not learned and were subsequently repeated in Rochdale several years later.

“The report from the review team finds that this claim is accurate. That represents a serious failing by those in the Greater Manchester system at that time.

“I have asked GMP and Rochdale Council to ensure that every possible action is taken to follow up any leads arising from this report and to pursue any potential perpetrators.

“More broadly, we will now proceed to the fourth and final stage of this process which will seek to answer the original question which I set at the start: whether the Greater Manchester public can have confidence in the arrangements in place now for protecting children from sexual abuse.

“The events described in this report took place over ten years ago and things have changed considerably in that time.

“Recent Ofsted inspections have found the way children at risk of sexual exploitation are protected by Rochdale’s children’s services has improved, and GMP have a specialist child sexual exploitation unit.

“But there can be no complacency on this of all issues, and that is why we continue to challenge ourselves and will not rest until we have independent assurance that today’s arrangements are robust.”

Mr Watson said: “It remains to be a matter of profound regret that victims of child sexual exploitation in Rochdale in the early 2000s were failed by Greater Manchester Police – to them, I apologise. Today, I also recognise the plight of Maggie Oliver and Sara Rowbotham – who advocated for victims and survivors when no one else did, and ultimately enabled the review and publication of this report.

“Whilst the report rightfully vindicates Maggie and Sara and reinforces the importance of the changes we have already made – many with Maggie’s support, it remains to be said that the current prevention of and response to child sexual exploitation in Rochdale and across Greater Manchester has been overhauled since the early 2000s to ensure that victims and survivors are cared for and receive the expected level of service.”

The GMP chief constable added: “With Rochdale’s Complex Safeguarding Hub and the force’s Child Sexual Exploitation Major Investigation Team now boasting 120 police officers and staff, following a multi-million-pound investment, we have data to assure ourselves and communities that we have and are making progress.

“Since nine men were convicted following Operation Span in 2012, there have been a further 135 arrests, 432 charges, and 32 convictions.

“This data should also warn perpetrators of child sexual exploitation that, regardless of the passage of time, GMP will pursue you until you face justice.

“The partnership will, of course, now spend time digesting the contents of the report to ensure the partnership has not missed any opportunities to improve.”

Rochdale Council leader, Councillor Neil Emmott, said: “We are deeply sorry that the people who were at Rochdale Council during the period 2004 to 2013 did not recognise nor acknowledge the very serious failures that affected the lives of children in our borough and failed to take the necessary action. I want to reassure the public that those responsible are gone and long gone.

“No amount of contrition or apology can ever repair the awful damage that was done to the lives of these survivors.

“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.

“I want to thank the Mayor Andy Burnham for commissioning this report and Malcolm Newsam and his team for investigating and compiling the report. The contributions of whistleblowers like Sara Rowbotham and Maggie Oliver also deserve full recognition.”

Since early 2012, GMP and Rochdale Council have overhauled the way they prevent and respond to child sexual exploitation to ensure that victims and survivors are cared for and receive the expected level of service.

While criminal justice outcomes are one aim of investigations and operations, through the Complex Safeguarding Hub also known as The Sunrise Team which co-locates police with local authority and health service colleagues, the partnership has refined the focus on the safeguarding of vulnerable young people and the prevention and reduction of exploitation. The team also run proactive operations to educate communities, identify potential victims and offenders, and close gateways to child sexual exploitation.

For example, under Operation Cobalt, the team visits hotels and taxi companies to educate staff on the signs of child sexual exploitation and how to report concerns to GMP or Rochdale Council.

Under Operation Vigilant, the team responds to intelligence gathered from key sources within communities to identify potential victims and offenders to enable early intervention.

In 2023, the team conducted seven days of action resulting in the seizure of 4,733 illegal vapes – which intelligence suggests are sometimes being used to groom vulnerable young people.

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”.

When crimes are identified or reported, the partnership designs and implements bespoke care plans to ensure victims and survivors are offered specialist support from the outset. Engagement is led by trained staff, who have experience of building rapport with people abused in childhood.

At the right time, suspect-focused and evidence-based investigations – like operations Doublet, Routh, and Lytton – then progress, with the support of the force’s Child Sexual Exploitation Major Investigation Team, to ensure they are reflective of the best practice recognised by The Hydrant Programme and National Association of People Abused in Childhood.

Significant progress has also been made through Operation Lytton, which is investigating non-recent multi-victim multi-offender child sexual exploitation in Rochdale between 2000 and 2008. So far, 37 suspects have been charged with 303 offences. In 2023, five were convicted of 22 offences and sentenced to a combined total of 71.5 years imprisonment. An additional 29 suspects are scheduled to go on trial in 2025.

Deputy Mayor for Police, Crime, Fire and Criminal Justice, Kate Green, said: “These reviews have been crucial for giving us a full and objective picture of non-recent child sexual exploitation in various parts of Greater Manchester. I am grateful to Malcolm Newsam and Gary Ridgway for conducting such a thorough review into Rochdale, listening to and respecting survivors, and putting them at the heart of this process.

“While this would have been difficult reading for GMP and Rochdale Council, I know they have taken it very seriously. I also know that attitudes and safeguarding practice have moved on.

“If anyone has been a victim of child sexual exploitation in Rochdale or anywhere in Greater Manchester, I want them to know that they will be listened to, they will be taken seriously, and action will be taken, and I would encourage them to come forward and report it and seek advice and help.”

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