The horrific case of a 12-year-old girl who was raped by strangers and let down by authorities in Oldham is ‘not unique’, says the ex-detective who has repeatedly blown the whistle on child abuse failures.
Maggie Oliver, a former detective constable with Greater Manchester Police (GMP), resigned from her job claiming that the force had failed the victims of the Rochdale sex grooming scandal. She has since been instrumental in Mayor Andy Burnham’s decision to launch a wide-reaching assurance review looking into failures in how police and social services protected vulnerable girls.
The first part of that review, published in 2020, focused on the abandoned ‘Augusta’ police operation which was investigating abuse by mainly Pakistani men in the Rusholme area of Manchester. The authors, Malcolm Newsam and Gary Ridgway, proved that the force closed down the operation despite knowing that scores of potential paedophiles were preying on vulnerable girls, many living in council-run care homes.
Now the second part of that overarching review, this time focusing on Oldham and how services handled claims of child sexual exploitation and protected children, has been published. Its damning findings are all too familiar for Maggie, who describes reading it as being like ‘groundhog day’.
During 2005 to 2006, and 2011 to 2014, the report has found that children in the borough were being exploited and let down by institutions which tried and failed to protect them. In an individual case, the review found that Sophie – not her real name – fell into the hands of predators after trying to report a sexual assault at Oldham police station. The 12-year-old was turned away for ‘being drunk’ and minutes later was in the hands of vile sexual predators, which led to a further 24 hours of torment in which she was raped repeatedly.
The Chief Constable of GMP, Stephen Watson, and leader of Oldham council Amanda Chadderton issued public apologies on Monday for how she was treated. Maggie has been closely involved with Sophie’s case as she has been supporting her through the Maggie Oliver Foundation which was set up after the findings of the Operation August report.
Sophie was raped by multiple men in one night in October 2006, aged just 12, but only two men were ever arrested. The one man to be jailed for his crime, Shakil Chowdhury, named two other men involved in the rapes of Sophie as part of his mitigation.
GMP were told their names, but did not follow them up at the time. One of the men was later convicted of attempting to murder his wife.
The review team said that Sophie was ‘shocked and dismayed’ that GMP had ‘not pursued these lines of investigation’ and had not shared the information with her.
Despite two different professional standards investigations by the force in 2013 and 2018, this was not picked up by either inquiry. Rather, the first investigation concluded that ‘no concerns were identified’ with the way police handled her case.
However an internal investigatory review by GMP in 2014 did find ‘serious weaknesses’ in the original investigation, which led to a major police operation called Operation Solent being launched. Maggie says the findings of the report show there were ‘catastrophic failings’ in how the force handled the investigation into the attacks on Sophie.
“I took Sophie to read her chapter in this review and she fell apart when she read that for 15 years GMP had known the identities of another two of her rapists and yet that was the very first time she found that out,” she explained.
“Victims are put through the mill time and time again and we need it to change because it destroys lives. This report shows yet again the lengths to which these organizations will go.
“Sophie is a case that we know, Sophie is by no means a unique case. This is going on all the time and it’s very rare that a victim is heard in this way. It’s buried by these organisations.
“It’s shocking that so many of the things that came out in the report should have been known right from day one. Basic investigative paths should have been followed from the start but they were not followed.
“There have been errors and failures all the way through. It shouldn’t have taken 15 years for that to be acknowledged. Delays can lead to further abuse.”
Maggie said that information known by the police was hidden from Sophie, and internal GMP investigations which had found no failures were ‘not worth the paper they’re written on’.
“Where is the accountability?” she added. “I really think trust in these organizations is broken.
“Rape and child abuse is almost becoming decriminalised because prosecutions are so low that even the figures now of reported rape, less than two per cent reach court. That’s without all those, like Sophie’s, which have not been recorded.”
However she said that she has not given up hope of trying to improve the situation for survivors of abuse, both in victim care and developing best practice when investigating these ‘life-destroying’ crimes.
For the past six months the foundation has been speaking to GMP about a number of cases similar to Sophie’s. But Maggie says she doesn’t want to be part of a ‘talking shop’ – she needs action now.
“We’ve referred 33 serious cases through to very senior officers where victims and survivors are coming to us saying they do not believe their cases are being dealt with properly,” she adds.
“Of those 33 cases we have only seen a resolution on one of those cases. That is really concerning. I’m hoping that things get better but we still have a very, very long way to go.
“We are gathering the evidence to put pressure on those organizations to change. As the foundation we are able to pull together many many voices and there is strength in numbers .
“One voice is easy to squash but you build up an army of those voices, of 30 or 40 or a hundred, those voices become more powerful and the pressure for change becomes greater.”
One of the authors of the Oldham report, Gary Ridgway, is a former detective superintendent in Cambridgeshire Police who has worked on numerous investigations into child sexual abuse failures, including in Rotherham and the Operation Augusta review.
He told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that they weren’t able to obtain some of the information Sophie gave to the review from GMP because the force said it was irrecoverable or they couldn’t find it.
“It’s a horrendous story and I can only be grateful to Sophie for letting us tell it in this report,” he added.
“The impact when we told her that when the guy was convicted he named two other people who raped her in the house, that had a huge impact on her emotionally. There is no excuse – if I can find that through an examination of case files then GMP should have been able to identify that.
“You’ve got to have professional curiosity, it is not good enough just to say ‘oh the child’s not making a complaint’, you have got to look deeper. And there were multiple opportunities in Sophie’s case to dig deeper.
“There is an onus in the multi-agency procedures to actually protect children. It’s not just about trying to get a conviction in court.”
He added: “A culture that allows middle managers to say we’re no longer taking on multiple rapes of a 12-year-old child because the resources aren’t there and just to push that away, that’s unhealthy and that for me – if it had been picked up properly and there had been a full investigation I think that would have saved Sophie so much heartache over the years.”
Chief Constable Watson apologised at Monday’s press conference for the way GMP handled Sophie’s case in 2006, and for the subsequent denials that there were failings. He said that the force would look to address the ‘missed opportunities’ of the past and bring perpetrators of historic abuse to justice.
“I have made the point that, much as we would want to, we can’t turn the clock back. But, the assurance is that, any perpetrator regardless of the passage of time will be pursued relentlessly,” he added.
He also announced the launch of Operation Sherwood as the ‘next leg’ in his drive to tackle sexual exploitation in Oldham and bring abusers before the courts.
“The assurance I give you in that context is that, to the fullest extent open to us, we will be making further arrests and prosecuting people who may mistakenly think they will get away with it,” Chief Constable Watson said.
“All of those things taken together I hope comprise a bit more in the way of reassurance as to how it is we align our business with partner agencies.”
However he stressed there could be no complacency in the fight against those who are prey on vulnerable youngsters.
“I am not, frankly, going to sit here and tell you that never will this happen again,” he said. “It is a fact that people have always sought to abuse children, people are today seeking to abuse children.
“We have to get better at preventing that in the first place. But when, God forbid, it happens we need to work really quickly to nip these things in the bud, hold people properly to account and to safeguard these children effectively at the very first opportunity available to us as public agencies.”
Oldham council has said that anyone affected by the issues in the review of historic child sexual exploitation in the borough, or who needs to make a report to of incidents that occurred in the past, can speak to trained professionals by calling its new dedicated helpline on 0161 770 1045, or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
People who need support or legal advice can also get in touch with the Maggie Oliver Foundation by clicking here.