The betrayal of Rochdale’s working-class girls
Victims of the grooming-gang scandal were dismissed and demonised by authorities.
Last week, Greater Manchester Police and Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham apologised to the victims of the Rochdale grooming gangs. This came after the publication of a new review into the authorities’ handling of multiple cases of child sexual abuse in north-west England. Damningly, the report accuses local authorities of abandoning exploited children ‘at the mercy of their abusers’.
An apology is long overdue. It has already taken far too long for the victims to get some modicum of justice. Between 2003 and 2013, as many as 74 girls were abused, raped and trafficked in and around Rochdale. Despite attempts by a handful of social workers and police officers to raise the alarm, allegations of a child sex-abuse ring were routinely dismissed and downplayed by the authorities. Even now, many of the perpetrators have gone unpunished.
Tragically, the UK has many more Rochdales. The lack of interest, care or respect that organisations and agencies showed to the girls of Rochdale is not exceptional or unusual – particularly in the run-down, deindustrialised towns of the north. Ultimately, the victims of grooming gangs in Rochdale and places like it were allowed to be forgotten because they were overwhelmingly poor and white. Meanwhile, the abusers were often of South Asian – particularly Pakistani – heritage. The authorities were so terrified of offending racial sensitivities that they effectively refrained from investigating the sexual abuse of young girls.
At this point, many might interject and say that most child abusers and paedophiles in the UK are white men. But the fact that the abusers in cases and areas like Rochdale were mainly of South Asian heritage does matter. The close community ties of the perpetrators played a large part in how they moved around cities and towns, trafficking, sharing and swapping girls with impunity.
The identity of the victims played a role, too. These girls were already on the margins of society, the products of broken homes and in and out of the care system. They were easy pickings for their abusers. They were seen as having little power or value. As poor and working-class girls in the UK, they were consistently devalued, viewed as ‘slags’, ‘rough’ or ‘common’. This made them easy to manipulate and even easier to ignore.
It is a vicious cycle. Poor families have poor children. And there will always be evil men who seek to exploit their poverty, using money, clothes, food, alcohol or drugs as leverage to abuse a child who has nothing. I have known many girls who lost their virginity for a pair of jeans off the market. Worse still, they earn little sympathy from the rest of society. As a working-class girl, you are scrutinised incessantly, from what you wear to how you speak, from how your children are dressed to what the inside of your home looks like.
The girls in Rochdale were prejudged. They were never truly seen as innocents. As the new report suggests, the exploited girls were frequently victim-blamed. Deputy mayor of Greater Manchester Kate Green explained to BBC Radio Manchester that the authorities made ‘assumptions that these girls were troubled’ and that they were ‘bringing it on themselves by their own behaviour’. It was simply accepted that girls as young as 13 would be having sexual relations with their adult ‘boyfriends’, because they came from dysfunctional backgrounds.
The case of Victoria Agoglia illustrates the consequences of this kind of thinking. In the early 2000s, this troubled Rochdale teen was supposedly being looked after by a team of social workers. And yet she was frequently being picked up by strange men at night and went missing for long periods of time. Both the police and her carers were aware that she was being exploited for sex in exchange for cash, alcohol and hard drugs. Somehow, though, Victoria was not thought to be worthy of saving. In 2003, she died after being injected with heroin by a 50-year-old man. He was given just three years in prison as punishment.
There are plenty more cases like Victoria’s among the victims of the grooming-gang scandals. The authorities didn’t see these girls as children in need of protection; they saw them as problems best left on council estates. They deemed the lives of poor and working-class girls to be of less importance than upholding politically correct sensibilities. Until they recognise this fundamental injustice, the authorities’ apologies will mean precious little.
Dr Lisa McKenzie is a working-class academic.
Picture by: Getty.
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