When they were finally reopened, the social services records told the story.
For more than 15 years, the harrowing details of child abuse suffered by girls in Manchester council’s care had lain on file, no real action taken.
One child had ‘begged’ carers to get her out of the city, telling them she was ‘too involved’ with Asian men. A man known by only his nickname ‘made her do things she didn’t want to do’.
Social workers recorded how girls were paid for sex, moved from premise to premise. One ‘very young’ child had told them how she had been ‘restrained by a man in his mid-20s, who then seriously assaulted her and committed an extremely serious and distressing sexual act’.
These accounts and more had been sitting there, waiting to be taken seriously, since at least 2004.
The stories of children as young as 12 had been told at the time – but council workers and care home staff working for the city did not protect them, today’s damning report into child sexual exploitation in south Manchester concluded.
The gang of Asian men abusing these girls in takeaways in and around the curry mile did little to hide their activities, because they didn’t need to.
According to the report: “Perpetrators appeared to be operating in “plain sight”, hanging around in cars outside care homes and foster homes and returning young people to their care addresses.”
In some cases the care workers would complain about the activities of the children, but appeared to have done little about it.
Tragic Victoria Agoglia, for example, whose relationship – aged 13 – with a man in his 20s ‘appears to have been condoned by social services’, according to the report.
“Residential care staff complained that Victoria’s “boyfriend”, who they described as her “pimp”, was supplying her with drugs on his visits to see her,” it says, but not that they did anything to stop it from happening.
Even though at one stage she was placed in a secure unit ‘because of the risks he presented to her’, once back in her care home he ‘was subsequently allowed to visit her placement on a supervised basis’.
“No attempts appear to have been made to establish his identity or background, or to validate his age or address, by either Manchester social services or Greater Manchester Police,” it adds.
Over the two years that followed, she reported being raped and abused, given drugs and, two months before her death, having been injected with heroin. She died of a suspected overdose, aged 15, in September 2003.
But she wasn’t the only one.
The report shows officials took the view that the girls needed to be encouraged to behave differently, rather than pursuing the network of older men they knew to be actively preying on children.
That network was so plugged in to the system that they specifically targeted a temporary unit where children new to care were initially placed, finds the report.
“There was clear evidence that professionals at the time were aware the young people were being sexually exploited and that this was perpetrated by a group of older Asian men,” it found.
“There was significant information known at the time about these men’s names, their locations and telephone numbers, but the available evidence was not used to pursue offenders.”
While multi-agency meetings were held on occasion to discuss such issues – including regarding Victoria – proactive measures were not taken to protect them, with a reliance instead on the children to manage their own behaviour.
Retired detective Maggie Oliver, whose whistleblowing on the closure of Greater Manchester Police’s aborted police operation into the gang helped prompt today’s review, insists that many social workers did want the abuse to be acted upon, however.
When Augusta was launched, she said, ‘the social workers were relieved that something was finally being done as they had been flagging incidents of grooming and “sex parties” to the police for a long time and did not know what else to do’.
She believes part of the problem for council staff stemmed from strict rules around what the council’s child protection unit could investigate – which at the time, she says, was limited to abuse by those with ‘care, custody or control of their victims’.
With GMP not equipped at the time to properly investigate child sexual exploitation, that then ‘led to many young people who were being exploited falling through the gap, as no one agency had ownership or responsibility for investigating this type of sexual crime’.
Social workers were nevertheless involved on the abortive Operation Augusta, which is praised by the review, but that was closed down by gold command in 2005 – at a meeting that did feature senior council officers. The decision-making police officer has not been identified, because neither GMP nor Manchester council said they could find the minutes.
Manchester council’s chief executive Joanne Roney has apologised for the horrific abuse suffered by children in its care, highlighting that four social workers have now been referred to the industry disciplinary body on the back of the review.
Sir Richard Leese, leader of the council, apologised to the victims for ‘serious shortcomings’ on behalf of the council.
“Our chief executive Joanne Roney has issued a statement on behalf of the council [below] on this issue which I fully endorse,” he said.
“I had no knowledge of Operation Augusta at the time and share the deep concern and regret that not enough was done to protect these vulnerable young people.
“On behalf of myself and the council I also wish to apologise to the young people affected for the serious shortcomings which clearly existed. We have learned and continue to improve and I want to reassure people that we are in a very different place now when it comes to safeguarding young people at risk of this sort of sexual exploitation.
“We have not waited for the publication of this report but have been working with police as soon as concerns came to light to re-address cases related to Operation Augusta. I will be making a full statement at the council’s executive meeting tomorrow.”
The council notes in its submission to the review that practice has moved on a long way since 2004. In the intervening years scandal after scandal has surfaced nationally and in late 2018, when today’s review was in the process of being finalised, the council set up a ‘complex safeguarding hub’ in Moss Side, where serious organised crime cops work alongside specialist social workers.
Nevertheless the report makes clear that is of no help to the girls abused with impunity at the time.
“The authorities knew that many were being subjected to the most profound abuse and exploitation but did not protect them from the perpetrators,” it concludes.
“This is a depressingly familiar picture and has been seen in many other towns and cities across the country. However, familiarity makes it no less painful for the survivors involved, and it should in no way detract from the need for them to be given the opportunity to ask that the crimes committed against them now be fully investigated.”
What the council says
In a statement chief executive Joanne Roney said: “This report makes for painful reading. We recognise that some of the social work practice and management oversight around 15 years ago fell far below the high standards we now expect. We are deeply sorry that not enough was done to protect our children at the time.
“While we cannot change the past we have learned from it and will continue to do so to ensure that no stone is left unturned in tackling this abhorrent crime.
“The report concerns a period when, as in many other towns and cities, child sexual exploitation was an emerging issue all too often viewed through a lens of misunderstanding wherever it occured.
“The review itself acknowledges that how we tackle the sexual exploitation of children has improved considerably. Manchester City Council and Greater Manchester Police work together much more closely and effectively to identify young people at risk of exploitation, put safeguarding measures in place to protect them and pursue perpetrators.
“Recent scrutiny from independent expert bodies including Ofsted and the Local Government Association has also endorsed the positive impact of this co-ordinated work. Our most recent Ofsted visit was only last month and we understand their feedback, due to be published next week, will highlight partnership working, leadership and our complex safeguarding hub as particular strengths.
“Work to build up trusted relationships with potential victims is also having success – both in prevention and in the prosecution of offenders.*
“We want to reassure Manchester people that, more than a decade and a half of learning later, we are in a much better place and the approach to tackling child sexual exploitation has strengthened significantly.
“We are also working closely with other Greater Manchester local authorities to share best practice.
“We have not simply waited for the publication of this review. Since spring 2018, as soon as we became aware of concerns regarding cases in the early 2000s, we have been working with Greater Manchester Police to re-examine them and support reinvestigation wherever possible. Matters relating to the period covered by the review are subject to a live and ongoing police operation.
“As chief executive of the Council, I was a key member of the steering group that oversaw this review team’s work. We have fully engaged with the review and not shirked from confronting past shortcomings to help inform continuing improvements. While bad people will always try to prey on the most vulnerable, keeping children safe is our absolute priority. We cannot and will not be complacent.
“Our prime concern throughout this process has been the interests of the young people directly affected, ensuring that their identities were protected, they were kept informed and that effective actions were taken wherever possible in the interests of justice.
“We would urge anyone affected by this report to come forward to us or the police. They will be believed. They will be supported.”