Oldham CSE report: Horrifying story of ‘Sophie’ a 12-year-old abused girl
Reporter: Charlotte Green, Local Democracy Reporter
Date published: 21 June 2022
Oldham Police Station
When a vulnerable 12-year-old girl was molested in a churchyard she went to Oldham police station in the hope that officers would bring her attacker to justice.
Instead, her cry for help was ignored and she was turned away for being ‘drunk’.
Minutes later she was in the hands of vile sexual predators, beginning a night of torment in which she was raped multiple times by men, most of whom have never been caught.
A review of allegations of sexual exploitation in Oldham, released yesterday, has found that authorities failed to properly investigate the crimes against the young girl in 2006, known only as ‘Sophie’.
The report, by experts Malcolm Newsam and Gary Ridgway, is also damning about the response of social services to Sophie’s plight, with council staff accusing her of being ‘prone to fantasise’ and ‘putting herself at risk’.
An outreach worker described Sophie as being in ‘good spirits’ in one visit despite ‘paradoxically’ recording that she had also drunk bleach before their meeting.
Greater Manchester Police (GMP) were told the names of two of her attackers but failed to charge either of them with a crime. One of these men would later be jailed for the attempted murder of his wife.
When as an adult Sophie complained to the council about the handling of her case, officers branded her as ‘litigious’ and told her too much time had passed for it to be looked into.
GMP also denied any wrongdoing and refused to admit failures to Sophie and her family, despite launching its own probe that identified missed forensic evidence and serious weaknesses in the original investigation.
These combined failures and subsequent denials have meant she has spent the past 15 years in limbo fighting the institutions that were supposed to protect her to get to the truth.
Both authorities have now been told to formally apologise to Sophie.
Sophie was first referred into children’s social care in March 2006 when she was 12, after reporting to her school that a family member had hit her – which they denied.
She consistently told social workers she wanted to be placed into care, but instead an outreach worker was enlisted to support her parents and work with her.
Sophie admitted to this outreach worker that she had been ‘talking to older men on the internet’. However records show the worker stated that ‘Sophie appears to try to gain attention and shock others by what she says’.
In June she informed the outreach worker that she wanted to go on the contraceptive pill, and wanted to meet a 19-year-old man she was talking to online. Sophie said she had already met him on one occasion in the car park of a Sainsbury’s store.
While the outreach worker discussed the dangers of this with Sophie, they said: “She seems to enjoy telling me things to impress or shock me. It is very difficult to know when Sophie is telling the truth or inventing stories.”
That same month a referral was made from the manager of the Brook Advisory Centre to Oldham council’s children’s social care department. They were concerned that Sophie had attended the clinic three times in the week before and had been sexually active since ‘before she was 12’.
Sophie insisted that her mother should not be involved, but told the clinic she was in a relationship with a man she had met on the internet who looked ‘older than his apparent years’.
She had taken a pregnancy test which was negative and asked to be placed on a contraceptive pill. After receiving this intelligence from the clinic, the duty social worker said they would contact the police but there is no record of the police being advised of the referral.
“On the same day the outreach worker reported that Sophie had been in good spirits but paradoxically also recorded that Sophie had ingested a small amount of bleach that morning,” the review found.
The case was allocated to a social worker who agreed to see Sophie at the clinic next time she attended. However Sophie then cancelled her visit to the clinic.
When the outreach worker was contacted they explained that she was ‘prone to fantasise’.
The social worker wrote to a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAHMS) officer with the concerns from the Brook clinic, but concluded: “Given your involvement I propose to close the case to myself, I have not contacted Sophie or her parents in respect of this referral.”
At this point no further action was taken by children’s social care. The CAHMS social worker, who was assessing Sophie for a suspected diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, confirmed they would work with Sophie and continue with bi-annual review meetings set up by the school.
But the review team has found this was an ‘inadequate’ response by children’s social care.
“Given the serious safeguarding concerns raised by the Brook clinic, children’s social care should at this juncture have called a strategy discussion under the child protection procedures,” they state.
Newsam and Ridgway point to a guide to safeguarding children, which states that a child under the age of 13 is not ‘legally capable’ to consent to sexual activity.
It also says cases involving children under the age of 13 should always be discussed with a nominated child protection lead, and that a strategy discussion involving social care, policies and relevant agencies should be held. However none of these requirements were followed in Sophie’s case.
At this time Sophie was regularly missing school, and she went missing in October 2006. When she returned the next day she disclosed that she had been subjected to a series of brutal rapes.
The torment began initially when she had been drinking with friends in the grounds of Oldham Parish Church where she was indecently assaulted by an Asian man, known only as Ali.
She went to Oldham police station to report the attack, but was then told to ‘re-attend with an adult when she was not drunk’.
“Given her age and vulnerability, this is very concerning and set in train a set of events that led her to be seriously abused on multiple occasions by different men,” the review states.
While she was in the police station, she was beckoned by two men who asked if she wanted to get in their car and ‘chill’.
Sophie said at that time she was ‘scared to go home’ so went with the men. This was directly outside the front door of the police station which was covered with a CCTV camera.
One of the men had gone into the police station to submit his driving licence to the desk. They then waited in the car for ten minutes for a third man, who was inside the police station.
While in the car with the men, Sophie was raped and sexually assaulted by the unknown abusers. She was then driven to a petrol station – which she was later able to identify – where one of her assailants withdrew money from a cash machine.
At around 10.30pm that night Sophie was dropped off near Werneth Park, where she asked a man – Sarwar Ali – for directions.
He said he would help her and invited her into his house. But in fact when she entered, instead of assisting her in her plight, Ali also raped her.
After giving her money to pay her bus fare, Sophie was allowed to leave, disorientated and distressed.
Near to this address, a man in a green car who had been driving past stopped and told her he would help her. In her heightened state of vulnerability, Sophie trusted the man, named Shakil Chowdhury.
But once again his words were empty promises designed to lure Sophie into the hands of yet more abusers and allow him to exploit her himself.
Instead of taking her home, Chowdhury drove her to another house on Attock Close where he and four other men raped Sophie over several hours. It was not until the next day that she was taken by one of the men back home.
Although Sophie reported all the attacks to police, only two arrests were ever made.
“Our judgement is that there were very serious failings in the investigation of the crimes reported by Sophie,” the Oldham review states.
The initial response by police officers was appropriate, they found. Sophie was seen by a specially trained officer and taken on a drive to identify locations where had been raped, which led to the idenfitication of Ali and Chowdhury.
She was medically examined and quickly interviewed the following day on video.
However the sexual assault in the churchyard, and Sophie’s rape by the men she met at the police station were never recorded as crimes.
“We have been unable to establish that any significant lines of enquiry were followed to identify and apprehend these offenders,” the review states.
Newsam and Ridgway judge that GMP concentrated on building a prosecution case against Ali and Chowdhury, without ‘sufficient regard’ to identifying the other offenders.
This is slammed in their review as a ‘serious failure’ to follow the national crime reporting standards, and to conduct the investigation thoroughly.
The CCTV footage outside the police station should have formed a crucial part of the evidence against the men who abducted her after she made her report of being molested.
Likewise the CCTV footage from the petrol station should have been examined, but the review team could find no record that this was done, or that this line of inquiry was pursued by GMP.
A number of items recovered from the house on Attock Close were submitted for forensic examination, including a ‘large number of condoms’, but this evidence has not been used to prosecute four out of the five assailants.
The review team found there were ‘serious weaknesses’ in the investigation.
A referral received by children’s social care from police set out Sophie’s assaults in detail in November 2006.
The duty worker said that ‘this child appears to be putting herself at risk’, and queried if CAMHS were still involved in her case.
After discussions between the CAHMS worker and carers in the local authority, the matter was not pursued by children’s social care.
Her case was picked up by the Messenger team – a specialist unit set up to prevent and disrupt child sexual exploitation in the borough.
They explicitly recorded that Sophie had gone to the police station, but had been turned away, and that she informed an officer in the police station that she had met two men who had invited her to ‘chill’ in their car.
“We conclude that the failure to provide protection to Sophie when she attended the police station was not appropriately investigated at the time,” the review team say.
This was despite a report of the incident being seen by the acting detective sergeant attached to Messenger, and their supervising inspector .
“No one raised concerns about the apparent failure to protect Sophie when she presented herself at the police station,” they add.
“We believe this is evidence of a significant failing by Greater Manchester Police in its treatment of a vulnerable 12-year-old child.”
There is no evidence that a formal strategy meeting was ever held to consider the risks to Sophie, which is a ‘further serious failure’.
Sarwar Ali was arrested and remanded to prison over his attack on Sophie. However he was then released following a bail application to a judge.
Ali was an illegal immigrant, and after being released on bail he failed to attend his appointment with the immigration service.
Police tried to trace and arrest him, but failed to do so. He is still at large.
In May of 2007, Shakil Chowdhury was found guilty in court and sentenced to six years in prison for his part in the multiple rapes of Sophie in Attock Close.
During his trial Chowdhury named two other men involved in the rapes of Sophie as part of his mitigation, but these were not followed up by GMP at the time, the report states, which is branded as ‘another serious failure’.
One of the men named by Chowdhury was subsequently convicted in 2009 of the attempted murder of his wife.
A review by GMP concluded that had the forensic enquiries in Sophie’s case been completed in 2006, he may have been identified and prevented his assault on his wife three years later.
The wife told police in 2011 that her husband had admitted to her that he had raped a 12-year-old.
This information was passed on to the Messenger team but was never acted upon.
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 ten years of her seeking answers’.
In 2012, by then aged 18, Sophie gave written evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee which was looking into child sexual exploitation and the response to localised grooming.
The chair of the committee at the time, Keith Vaz, wrote to Oldham council asking the authority to lay out what steps social services had taken to protect Sophie, and whether they were reviewing the case.
An associate assistant director reviewed her files, and internally emailed a solicitor in the council’s legal department saying that in their opinion there was ‘very little if anything to support…allegations of a failure to protect’.
However the review team found this, in light of the failures to follow statutory protection procedures in place at the time, a ‘wholly unrealistic assessment of the deficiencies of both the council and the police in their response to Sophie’.
A complaint to the council from Sophie accused the town hall of leaving her in a ‘turmoil of abuse’.
The council’s response in December 2013 to Mr Vaz concerning the abuse that Sophie had suffered, described her complaint as ‘litigious’ and said they would not be investigating it due to the ‘passage of time’.
The reply stated that they did not consider there was evidence to ‘substantiate the claims made in Sophie’s complaint’.
The review team branded this an ‘inadequate’ response, but said it was led entirely by senior professionals responsible for safeguarding and was not influenced by then-council leader Jim McMahon.
“We regard this as poor professional judgement by the senior officer and an unacceptable response to both the MP and to Sophie, given the serious failures to protect Sophie evidenced on the case file,” they write.
There were ‘at least’ two occasions when safeguarding procedures should have been begun, which may have protected Sophie from the ‘predatory males who ended up abusing her’ aged just 12 years old, the report states.
As late as 2015, senior council officers stated that as a child Sophie had had an ‘unhealthy interest in the internet’.
Mr Vaz also wrote to Greater Manchester Police in 2013 to ask for details of how it handled Sophie’s case. While the review team could not obtain a copy from GMP from its reply, Sophie said that a Detective Chief Inspector had described the investigation as ‘flawless’.
However the review team say the force presented a ‘less than candid approach’ to the enquiry from the committee.
Through her husband, Sophie submitted a complaint to GMP in 2013 – but in reply was told that after reviewing all the information, the force was ‘unable to prove the 2006 investigation contained procedural irregularities’.
Two different investigations by the professional standards branch of the force were carried out in 2013 and 2018. 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.
As part of Operation Solent, further forensic examinations were carried out on exhibits seized from a bedroom where Sophie had been raped.
These included DNA of five men contained on condoms, two of which were linked forensically with Sophie.
One of these was the man named by Chowdhury, who later went on to attack his wife. He was arrested as part of Operation Solent but gave no comment in interview, and no charges were ever levelled against him.
Sexual DNA from other men, and three other women, was also identified at the house. Two of the women the DNA belonged to told police they had had sex with Chowdhury at the address when they were 16.
“We believe this forensic evidence does go some way to support Sophie’s later assertion that [the address] was a place where young women were sexually exploited by Asian males,” the review team state.
In an open letter to the council in 2019, Sophie had stated that residents of Attock Close had ‘repeatedly’ told the authority about a ‘large-scale grooming operation in which taxis would amass on the street every Wednesday night and children would be taken to [the address] in a conveyer belt fashion’.
In 2014 the internal review by GMP found a series of failures in the way the force handled its investigation, including forensic examination not being conducted, crimes not being investigated thoroughly or recorded, and Sarwar Ali being charged but never traced.
Key evidence was lost or destroyed, including CCTV, Sophie’s ‘best achieving evidence’ video interview, exhibits from Attock Close, and the prosecution file.
“These weaknesses were not acknowledged to Sophie or her husband at the time nor were they made aware of the disclosures by [Chowdhury] during his trial and the failure of Greater Manchester Police to investigate him,” the review team say.
A further review of her complaints was undertaken in 2018 by the professional standards branch within GMP.
The response offered an apology to Sophie and her family. However it stated that despite some failings being identified, they remained of the view that investigations were ‘conducted to a reasonable standard’.
Sophie says she cannot recall receiving this apology, and GMP have not been able to confirm to the review team that it was actually made.
The police’s position was also supported by the Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC), that as ‘numerous’ serious criminal offences had been reported by Sophie, the police ‘correctly focused their efforts on bringing the perpetrators to justice’.
The watchdog said that it was satisfied that no officer had a case to answer for misconduct or gross misconduct.
However the review team says they do not share this view. They say they believe different conclusions would have been drawn if the IOPC had been ‘cognisant of Operation Solent and its subsequent conclusions’.
An independent review commissioned by Oldham council in 2019 found there were ‘missed opportunities’ to intervene using child protection procedures.
“Multi-agency procedures are there to protect vulnerable children from sexual exploitatoin and the failure to follow those procedures meant that the risks to Sophie were insufficiently considered an the approach to them was inadequate,” Malcolm Newsam and Gary Ridgway say.
They conclude that their response ‘feed a view that both agencies are more concerned about covering up their failures than acknowledging the harm had been done to a vulnerable young person’.
The team have recommended that both GMP and Oldham council ‘publicly acknowledge the serious failures and apologise to Sophie. It is not yet known whether she will accept their apology.
In response to the findings of the review, Oldham council leader Amanda Chadderton said: “We fully accept the findings of this independent report.
“It highlights clear failings, where our services at the time were not good enough to protect vulnerable young people suffering the most awful abuse. For that I am deeply sorry.
“I can never fully understand what those girls went through, and I also know that an apology now will never make up for what has happened in the past.
“I do hope, however, to offer some reassurance that, as a council, we haven’t stood still since the time period the review refers to.
“We have learned from reports carried out in other towns and cities across the country, and from changes in national guidance, and have changed the way we do things as a result.
The way we work has already moved on immeasurably.
“That said, we are not complacent. We can and will improve further, wherever we need to.”
Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, Stephen Watson said: “The safeguarding arrangements that were in place in GMP during the time period covered by the review were not good enough to protect children from sexual abuse.
“I want to offer my sincere apologies to everyone affected by the events considered in the report. Our actions fell far short of the help that they had every right to expect and were unacceptable.
“I am sorry for the hurt and on-going trauma they have suffered because of what happened to them.”
He added he intends to meet directly with Sophie and the organisation that has been supporting her to apologise in person.
“However, I would also like to take the opportunity today to state publicly that I am very sorry for the failings in how we responded to her call for help; for how we did not record or sufficiently investigate the crimes committed against her and did not do enough to listen and support her during the subsequent reviews we undertook of her case.
“I offer no excuses but can give assurances that our approach to tackling child sexual exploitation has vastly improved and is now a policing priority.”
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