Groomed by gang

Groomed by gang

Child sexual abuse has never been a higher police priority. But too many rapists avoid justice, argues former detective Margaret Oliver. As her role in prosecuting the Rochdale grooming gang is marked in a new TV drama, she says police must do more to win the trust of victims

I'll never forget the day I arrested Shabir. The light had begun to fade as we knocked on the door of his terraced house in Oldham one early evening back in 2011. As the safety chain rattled and the door opened, the man standing before us seemed anything but the evil predator leading a Rochdale grooming gang he was about to be exposed as.

He came quietly as we arrested him and there was no sign of the defiance and abusive outbursts that would later be seen in court. He still had the look of someone who thought he was going to get away with it.

And well he might, as many rapists like Shabir had been getting away with it for years. I'd worked with too many young victims of horrific rapes and seen cases go nowhere - even when there was solid evidence. I'd lost count of the times I had to look in the eyes of broken teenagers and explain that there was nothing I could do. The rapists who'd destroyed their lives were about to get off scot-free.

But not this time.

Groomed by gang

Getting Shabir off the street was a big breakthrough and I was convinced he was going to be the first of many. We were close to uncovering an epidemic of child sexual abuse and there were scores of men we knew had been violently raping underage girls that were in our sights.

That we'd come this far owed a lot to the huge resources now being allocated to tackling grooming gangs (Operation Span was the biggest inquiry Greater Manchester Police were running). But, more importantly, it was down to the hard-won trust we'd managed to establish with the girls these vile rapists were targeting.

Without that trust, it didn't matter if 10,000 officers were assigned to the case. We had to get girls to give evidence in court and I knew only too well that Greater Manchester Police did not have a particularly sophisticated approach to winning vulnerable hearts and minds when trying to prosecute rapists.

Even though an awareness of child grooming was starting to sweep through the country, the police were still relying on an outdated, approach that didn't work.

Joining the police as a mum of four in 1997, I'd spent years learning how to build trust as a detective and family liaison officer working on major murders. I knew that good policing could not function without it. But the hard work of building up trust wasn't especially valued by the top brass. I wasn't breaking down doors or wrestling violent drug dealers to the ground. I was going to a cemetery to help a mother pick a plot to bury her son and supporting people who were prepared to give up everything and go on to the witness protection programme to put away murderers.

Groomed by gang

It wasn't long before I was working on rapes, domestic abuse and child protection jobs - the kind of cases that other officers working in Moss Side generally didn't want to do. And I was good at them. But if you won the trust of vulnerable girls who'd been through hell, you had to deliver - and that was heavily dependent on the appetite of people at the top to investigate these crimes.

Years before I worked on a scoping exercise - a full-blown major incident team investigation which had identified considerable numbers of child abusers in south Manchester. I'd listened to girls who had been drugged so they couldn't move before they were violently raped - but the investigation was closed down. A few people were warned under the Child Abduction Act but no-one was charged.

I was sickened then and still feel angry now when I think back to that case. Vulnerable people were reaching out, desperate to secure justice, and we were letting them down. I'd sworn an oath to uphold the law and ensure "equal respect to all people" when I joined the police. Those words seemed meaningless now.

Watch Three Girls at 9pm on Tuesday 16 May 2017 on BBC One

Groomed by gang

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