Between 2008 and 2010, a child abuse ring that came to be known as part of the “grooming gang” phenomenon operated in Rochdale, Greater Manchester. Girls aged between 13 and 15 were trafficked, prostituted, raped and assaulted by the gang.
One victim was forced to have sex with at least 20 men in one night; another was forced to drink vodka, and was vomiting over the side of the bed while being raped by “countless men”.
The perpetrators would pass the girls to their friends, often to settle a debt. The victims, many of whom were from difficult backgrounds and therefore particularly vulnerable, were plied with drugs, alcohol and fast food, and then taken to “chill houses” across the north of England to be abused. One 13-year-old victim became pregnant and had an abortion. Some of the men involved were arrested, tried and found guilty. But not all.
One of the victims – given the fictitious name Amber in Three Girls, the BBC One drama about the abuse – was 14 when she was targeted by gang members. After a troubled upbringing, Amber had been placed on the child protection register as being at risk of sexual and emotional abuse and neglect. Craving love and attention, Amber was lured into a nightmare, subjected to repeated and often violent sexual abuse.
That nightmare should have ended with the arrest and trial of the perpetrators, but instead the police, Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and even social services treated her not as a victim but as a perpetrator.
Last Tuesday Amber, with two other victims of the Rochdale grooming gang, finally received an apology delivered personally by Stephen Watson, the chief constable of Greater Manchester police (GMP). Their treatment encompasses a range of catastrophic errors in one of the country’s most harrowing child sexual abuse scandals.
When we met in a hotel in Rochdale last month, Amber was accompanied by Maggie Oliver, a former police detective who walked out of the job in protest at the way Amber had been treated.
In 2009, when Amber was 16, uniformed officers arrived at her mother’s house, arrested her and took her to the police station.
“[I] can’t remember exactly what they said, but it was something along the lines of being a ‘madam’,” she recalled. “I didn’t know what that meant.” She was held in custody for hours before being released on bail. Her mother was not allowed to be with her during the interview, and there was no mention of an appropriate adult.
Amber had, under pressure from the abusers, taken some of her friends to the takeaway where the ringleaders operated from. She told me: “It wasn’t like a forced thing. It was like a casual, ‘Oh, bring your friends.’” She was a vulnerable child, being sexually abused, controlled and in fear.
No further action was taken against Amber, but it would be another two years before the CPS agreed that she should be treated as a victim and witness rather than a suspect. During that period, Amber – by now pregnant and living in a one-room flat – continued to be targeted by the grooming gangs. Although police interviewed a total of 56 men on suspicion of abuse, only a handful were tried. There were therefore many still walking free that had evaded detection.
Amber was also threatened at gunpoint by a man whom she subsequently identified to the police. Nothing happened. She told me: “Police weren’t arsed with us, really. They weren’t bothered … when you’re from a shit home. They don’t give a fuck when you’re not from a wealthy background.”
It was only when she met Oliver in early 2012 that things started to change. Oliver had been headhunted to join the grooming gangs case as detective and victim liaison officer in 2010 because of her experience working with vulnerable victims.
Amber was understandably reluctant to trust the police. But once the CPS advised the GMP that she was no longer seen as a suspect, she was persuaded by Oliver to begin a series of video interviews and ID parades.
I asked Amber what gave her the strength to give evidence to the police, after what she had gone through. She told me: “So it didn’t happen to anybody else. I didn’t want other people to feel how I felt.” Her courage and Oliver’s support resulted in a database of abusers whom she identified by names, car registrations, telephone numbers and addresses. It formed a large part of the police investigation that became known as Operation Span.
The ID parades were particularly gruelling for Amber, who did 12 in one day alone, correctly identifying 10 of her abusers. Afterwards, she told me: “I went home, put it to the back of my mind to be honest. I’ve got a box in the back of my head, and I just put it all in there and it’s locked away.”
But before what turned out to be the final interview, Oliver says she started to notice a change in tone from senior officers, and felt they were now deliberately trying to push this victim away. Then, shortly after the ID parade, Oliver was told that they were no longer going to “use” Amber’s evidence. She walked out, refusing to go along with this decision, and was forbidden from speaking to Amber.
The period during the buildup to the trial of the men accused of being part of the grooming gang, was dark for Amber. She says she was never informed by police either that she was no longer being treated as a victim, or that none of those she alleged to be her abusers was to be prosecuted for her abuse.
The trial of nine of the grooming gang was pending, and in the meantime, despite never having been informed, arrested or cautioned, Amber was added to the indictment by the CPS as a co-conspirator.
Without Amber’s initial evidence there might never have been a trial at all. She gave the police a list, at an early stage of Operation Span, with nicknames, telephone numbers and other details relating to offenders. She later went on to positively identify a number of offenders, which enabled charges to be brought against them all.
But in court, she was portrayed by the prosecution and defenceas an assistant pimp. Because she was not involved in the trial, and therefore did not give evidence, she had no opportunity to defend herself. She was vilified and nicknamed in the press as the “Honey Monster”. Although a court order prevented her being named, everyone in her local community knew who she was.
After the court case, social services started to pursue Amber, with the aim of having her children removed. Just before the due date of her second baby, she was called to the family court, where an application was made to remove both children on the grounds that Amber was an abuser and a danger to children.
Finally, after a gruelling 18 months and several hearings, the judge threw the case out. Five years later she won an apology and compensation from social services.
In 2019, Amber, along with two other victims, with the help of the Centre for Women’s Justice, issued a civil claim for damages against GMP and the director of public prosecutions (DPP). While GMP has finally settled the claim, which includes the personal apology from the chief constable, the DPP has so far resisted. In response to Amber’s claim that it was wrong to name her on the indictment, it says it was “both legally and tactically the correct course to take”.
To date, the CPS has not accepted any failure on its part and instead continues to herald this case as the first successful prosecution of a grooming gang. While this is true, Amber believes that she was used as a scapegoat.
“What the police and CPS did to me was worse than the abuse … The apology will be a kind of a weight lifted from me.” But the nightmare will never really be over. Amber still sees those whom she says raped, beat and tortured her, out and about in Rochdale. “One delivered a takeaway to my house a few weeks back,” she tells me.
Finally, she has been exonerated. She has forced the police and social services to apologise to her for their behaviour.
“I agreed to help the police to stop it happening to others,” Amber wrote to Oliver in the midst of her campaign for justice. “I trusted police … that I would be helped this time. I gave hours of interviews, reliving all the abuse. I felt sick, got upset … nothing never no one from police came to me to explain why I was no longer going to court. Not one charged never, why?
“My name has been dragged through the mud. I push thoughts about the abuse out of my head. And I’ve done nothing wrong – I was a victim of these men at the age of 14. I should’ve been helped, not punished.”
The NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331.