From the Manchester Evening News
Children were raped and abused by up to 100 members of a Manchester grooming gang sixteen years ago - but despite police and social workers knowing what was happening they weren’t stopped.
At least 57 young girls are thought to have been exploited by a paedophile network based in south Manchester. They were hooked on drugs, groomed, raped and emotionally broken - one youngster, aged fifteen, died.
The disturbing story of the gang's crimes, the betrayal of the victims, and the scale of institutional neglect is disclosed in a damning two year inquiry into historic failures in the protection of children in Manchester.
The report, commissioned by Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, found:
- Social workers knew that one 15-year-old girl, Victoria Agoglia, was being forcibly injected with heroin, but failed to act. She died two months later.
- Abusers were allowed to freely pick up and have sex with Victoria and other children from city care homes, ‘in plain sight’ of officials.
- Greater Manchester Police dropped an operation that identified up to 97 potential suspects and at least 57 potential victims. Eight of the men went on to later assault or rape girls.
- As recently as August 2018, the Chief Constable refused to reopen the dropped operation.
The review, commissioned by Greater Manchester mayor's office in 2017 and written by experts Malcolm Newsam and Gary Ridgway, looked at the way authorities have dealt with child sexual exploitation. It was launched on the back of allegations made by former GMP detective Maggie Oliver.
At its heart is the death of 15-year-old Victoria Agoglia, also known as Victoria Byrne, in 2003.
Its conclusions lay bare the scale of the abuse she suffered at the hands of men who freely came and went from her care home with the full knowledge of the authorities - also revealing she had repeatedly told social workers she was being injected with drugs and raped. It finds no action was taken to protect her.
After her death a police investigation, Operation Augusta, was set up to see if there was a wider problem of child sexual exploitation in south Manchester. Officers managed to quickly identify a network of nearly 100 Asian men potentially involved in the abuse of scores of girls via takeaways in and around Rusholme, but the operation was shut down shortly afterwards due to resources,
Barely any charges were made against the men identified by the operation. Eight of them later went on to commit serious sexual crimes, including the rape of a child, the rape of a young woman, sexual assault and sexual activity with a child.
The report looked in detail at the files of 26 such potential victims identified by the police in 2004 and finds: “Most of the children we have considered were failed by police and children's services.”
It concludes: “The authorities knew that many were being subjected to the most profound abuse and exploitation but did not protect them from the perpetrators. This is a depressingly familiar picture and has been seen in many other towns and cities across the country. . . "
The report's damning findings vindicate a 15-year campaign by former GMP detective Maggie Oliver - who worked on Operation Augusta - and Victoria's family, who have long fought for a full police investigation to be carried out.
It is understood that after publication of the review’s findings became clear to GMP last year, it finally launched an 'investigatory review' of its original inquiries, including relating to Victoria, code-named Operation Greenjacket. However, as recently as August 2018, the Chief Constable, Ian Hopkins, had told the inquiry there was no commitment by GMP to do so.
Behind the scenes, it is also understood moves may be afoot to reopen the original inquest into Victoria’s death. The report also shows a number of public bodies in Greater Manchester were slow to provide information for its inquiries, including GMP, Manchester council and the current coroner, Joanne Kearsley.
GMP claims to have lost the minutes of the meeting at which Operation Augusta was shut down, while a number of ex-senior police officers declined to speak to the review about the investigation.
Augusta was the code-name given to the short-lived operation launched the year after Victoria’s death, which in several respects is praised by the review.
A small team of officers - which the report finds were under-resourced from the start - set about investigating the possibility of a wider grooming gang operating in the south Manchester area, due to ‘a genuine fear that a group of Asian men were targeting vulnerable girls in residential care for sexual exploitation’.
It quickly identified 25 potential victims aged between 11 and 17, many thought to be linked to one of the men who had abused Victoria. Ten of the girls described being taken from their care homes to have sex with Asian men above a nearby takeaway.
One told police how girls were being offered £50 for sex, while others described going to ‘sex parties’ of 20 Asian men.
In the space of just a few months, the review finds, officers managed to build up a ‘compelling picture of the systematic exploitation of looked after children in the care system in the city of Manchester’. They entered the details of nearly 100 men into the GMP computer system, who had all been identified as being involved in sexual exploitation in some way. In many cases police had considerable levels of detail on the potential abusers, including locations, phone numbers and registration plates.
They also identified that the abusers knew the system well enough to be targeting a temporary unit that housed girls when they were first taken into care.
“The team collected a strong intelligence picture on the suspects, identifying up to potentially 97 persons of interest, including how they operated,” says the report. “These were predominantly Asian men working in the restaurant industry, and the team had a good insight into how they enticed young girls in the care system and ultimately abused them.
“The team also believed it had made a significant link with the adults involved with Victoria Agoglia and the suspected perpetrators in south Manchester.”
However the report finds that when the operation moved from its initial scoping phase and into a full-blown investigation, there were ‘fundamental flaws’ in its resourcing from the start. Initially officers found it difficult to even find space in a police station . . . One recalled feeling like ‘an annoying add-on’ to the syndicate they were placed with in Wythenshawe, where they had to share resource with a murder inquiry. Meanwhile there were ‘tensions’ between the three police divisions covered by the operation, with none wanting to take responsibility for resourcing it and no centralised department tasked with looking at child exploitation.
The senior investigating officer drafted onto the operation was familiar with the Operation Cleopatra investigation into child abuse at the end of the 1990s, which had ended up being much larger than previously expected. So while Augusta was ‘meticulous’ , according to one detective interviewed by the inquiry, the SIO also ‘wanted to put tight constraints on the operation so it didn’t balloon out of control’.
But in April 2005, a gold command meeting - the minutes of which GMP says have been lost - took place and the chief superintendent said he would be unable to devote any permanent staff to it going forward. Augusta was to be wound down at the start of July 2005, with only one man having been prosecuted.
Maggie Oliver, a detective on the investigation who has campaigned for years to get Augusta reopened, recalled that she went on compassionate leave due to the illness of her late husband in March 2005, a month before the decision was taken. She left ‘in the confident knowledge that finally the issues were being tackled, the abuse was being addressed, and children protected’. When she returned, ‘it was as if Operation Augusta had just disappeared as if it had never even existed, none of the serious sexual offending had been addressed, and no one prosecuted’.
The report shows that not only did GMP close the original Augusta investigation, but that it refused to reopen it as recently as August 2018, despite pleas from both Mrs Oliver and Victoria’s family - who have repeatedly stressed that victims had been failed and abusers left to walk the streets.
The report also shows that while more junior detectives who worked on Augusta were willing to speak directly with the review, more senior former officers - when asked by GMP - were not.
Neither was it (the review) able to ascertain who had the position of gold commander when the decision was taken to shut down the operation, although it says it would be likely to have been a chief superintendent or an assistant chief constable.
It was unable to obtain minutes of the gold command meeting at which Augusta was shut down. It requested those minutes ‘but neither GMP nor Manchester City Council was able to provide a copy’, it says.
The review is in no doubts that the council and its homes knew of the abuse being suffered by girls in their care, including Victoria Agoglia.
“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,” notes the report of the council’s knowledge of the abuse. “In conclusion, we found clear evidence in the social care files that the young people were not well served or protected by the statutory agencies.”
While some meetings were held with reference to the abuse, it adds: “A key concern was that the focus of the strategy meetings was on agencies encouraging young people to protect themselves rather than providing protection for them.
Nevertheless one former social worker interviewed by the review still appeared to suggest that the responsibility lay with the children.
“They weren’t viewed as sex offenders per se, just a group of men of all ages, from one ethnicity taking advantage of kids from dysfunctional backgrounds,” they said of the gang.
Manchester council highlighted that seven of the 26 children referred to specifically in the report were not in its care but that of other local authorities.
Joanne Roney, chief executive, said: “This report makes for painful reading. . . 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.
"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. . ."
The willful dereliction of duty at all levels of government is incomprehensible.
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