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, ‘rather than a sound understanding’ of whether lines of inquiry had been exhausted.
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.
Council files reviewed by the inquiry show a number of children in care at the same time as Victoria had reported ‘harrowing’ abuse to social services, including one ‘very young’ girl who described being restrained by a man in his 20s, before being subjected to ‘an extremely serious and distressing sexual act’.
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.
“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.
“We would also apply the same expectation to the family of Victoria Agoglia, who have been asking for her abuse to be investigated since her tragic death in 2003.”
It also raises serious questions about how Simon Nelson, the coroner who carried out Victoria’s inquest in 2007, was able to conclude her death could not have been foreseen by the authorities.
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.
Raped, threatened, injected: the tragedy of Victoria Agoglia
At the centre of the review’s findings is the horrific death of 15-year-old Victoria Agoglia, originally from Rochdale, who was placed in the care of Manchester council at the age of eight.
Victoria died from a suspected heroin overdose in September 2003.
50-year-old Mohammed Yaqoob, who had been forcibly injecting her, was later cleared of manslaughter and jailed for three-and-a-half years for administering the noxious substance.
At her inquest in 2007, coroner Simon Nelson concluded that the authorities could not have foreseen her death, recording a narrative verdict and referencing her propensity to ‘grant sexual favours’.
But the review, which forensically reopened and examined Manchester council records dating back the best part of two decades, concludes social services ‘failed to protect her’.
By the time she was 13, social workers knew that she was taking drugs and engaging in what they referred to at the time as ‘prostitution’, it finds, with care home staff complaining about a ‘boyfriend’ and ‘pimp’ in his mid-20s visiting her and supplying drugs.
It says this relationship was known about by police and the council, but appears from the records to have been ‘condoned by social services’ and no attempts were apparently made to find out exactly who the man was.
In March 2003, six months before her death, the man took her to the home of one of his relatives. She later reported that she had been raped, but despite a medical examination, the abuse was allowed to continue.
Three months after, in July 2003, she told social services that she was using heroin daily. At the end of that month, her drugs worker was informed by her social worker that an older man was injecting her with heroin.
“It is difficult to understand why this information was not immediately relayed to the police and why the threat of significant harm was not addressed,” finds the report.
“Victoria told her drugs worker the same thing a week later. She agreed with the drugs worker that she would in future smoke heroin and not have it injected.”
Within two months of that conversation, she visited the home of Yaqoob, who injected her with heroin. Five days later, on September 29, 2003, she died in hospital.
The review found that the authorities were well aware of the abuse she had been subjected to, but failed to act.
Files showed that as long as two years before her death, Victoria had reported been ‘repeatedly threatened, assaulted, returned intoxicated and in distress’, that she ‘gave information that she was involved in sexual exploitation, alleged rape and sexual assault requiring medical attention’ and that she had become involved in the criminal justice system, as well as having several pregnancy scares.
Her ‘boyfriend’ had been allowed to visit her in the care home she lived in.
While the inquiry found ‘some evidence’ of multi-agency meetings set up to discuss the situation, not one of them resulted in a child protection investigation designed to protect her from significant harm.
“Manchester City Council had parental responsibility for Victoria throughout this difficult period and due to poor professional practice and an absence of the most basic statutory child protection processes failed to protect her,” it concludes.
The review also seriously questions the conclusions of coroner Simon Nelson at Victoria’s inquest in 2007.
He recorded a narrative verdict in which he cited a propensity ‘to provide sexual favours’.
“From our analysis of the social care files, this significantly underplays the coercion and control Victoria was subject to,” finds the review, also questioning his conclusion that her death could not have been foreseen, given that social service files contained clear evidence of her abuse.
“We are unclear, therefore, how the coroner could have concluded that ‘no inferences can be made that the events from the 24 September were reasonably foreseeable’, it finds.
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.
All the victims who were identified in the early stages of Augusta were living in care homes in south Manchester. 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, while several of the cops drafted onto the inquiry were not trained detectives, partly because resource was being focused on two murders that occurred around the same time.
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’.
Over the months that followed, a wealth of information about the network’s activities was nonetheless amassed, including at least 15 victims who were willing to cooperate with the police.
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’.
“Fundamentally, we believe, from the evidence that we have seen, that the decision to close down Operation Augusta was driven by the decision by senior officers to remove the resources from the investigation rather than a sound understanding that all lines of enquiry had been successfully completed or exhausted,” concludes the report.
Greater Manchester Police
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.
In 2014, Victoria’s grandmother Joan told ITV: “These men are still walking about.
“She needs to be put to rest and I hope if anyone is watching and they do know something, even if it’s the smallest thing, to come forward so that social services will know there’s a lot of people that still know they never helped these young girls.”
At the time, then-chief constable Sir Peter Fahy told ITV he would be ‘quite happy’ to look at Victoria’s case again.
However, the report says Joan was never contacted afterwards by GMP in regards to reopening the case.
It says that, when asked about what it calls Sir Peter’s ‘commitment’ to look again at the case, the current Chief Constable Ian Hopkins told the review’s authors in August 2018: “I can confirm that this suggestion by [the former chief constable] was just that and not a commitment to review this case.
“There is a need for Greater Manchester Police to reengage with [Victoria’s relative] directly and the best and most appropriate course for that to happen is through our appointed Family Liaison Officers.”
On receiving a draft of the review in September 2019, the team received an email from Sir Peter, who said it was ‘difficult to remember’ – as part of the ‘hundreds of interviews’ he has given over the years’ – ‘one particular question and my response’, but that he had been open to review any case.
He added that he was ‘very sorry that Victoria’s family have not had justice in this case’, adding that he had no reason to be defensive about it.
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.
One former detective chief superintendent involved with the case did not respond at all, with GMP later saying that they had subsequently provided with him documentation to ‘refresh his memory’. The review was told he ‘did not recall any of the detail and would not be able to assist’.
A second, head of public protection at the time, wrote back that he was ‘unable to recall’ any specific details of the operation, although a more junior detective on the case told the inquiry she had ’numerous’ conversations about detail as ‘he was part of the force tasking group involved in the decision to appoint a major incident team to the operation’.
The review said it was unable to reconcile those two statements as it had been unable to speak to him face-to-face.
Neither was it 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.
When she was as young as 13, residential workers ‘complained that Victoria’s “boyfriend”, who they described as her “pimp”, was supplying her with drugs on his visits to see her’, according to the review.
Indeed shortly before her death, she informed both her social worker and drugs worker that she had been injecting heroin, but nothing was done.
It wasn’t just Victoria.
A detailed review carried out into Manchester council’s social services records, looking at the case files of 26 children identified by Operation Augusta as being potentially at risk, revealed reams of allegations made to council workers at the time.
Carers heard one child say ‘they go to various houses with groups of Asian males aged 18 to 23 and have sex. She had been with a 23-year-old male the previous night and he introduced her to his brother.’ The girls are allegedly forced to have sex with the men, according to the records.
Care staff reported another child was ‘likely’ to be getting her money from ‘a network of Asian men’.
“The social worker said that one of the men would have given her money and this led to her being sent to different establishments for sex,” says the review.
Another ‘begged’ her carers to move her from Manchester as she was ‘too involved in Asian men’, including one who ‘made her do things she didn’t want to do’.
“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.
“There was very little evidence from the social care files of the deployment of disruption strategies to protect the young people.”
Former detective Maggie Oliver told the review some social workers had long been pushing GMP to investigate, however, ‘telling us they’d been trying to get the police to take this problem seriously for years’.
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.
“It could have overwhelmed child protection.
“There had to be a degree of pragmatism, the children also had to manage their own behaviour, the education issues were far greater than the enforcement issues.”
Retired detective Maggie Oliver is one of the key reasons the review was commissioned by Andy Burnham.
Later one of the officers who investigated Rochdale’s grooming ring, in 2004 she was one of those who prepared the initial scoping report for Operation Augusta. She told the report’s authors of her suspicion that it was only set up in the first place due to PR reasons, because at the time GMP believed a Channel 4 documentary into grooming in Yorkshire was about to be aired.
After researching that suggestion, the review agreed: “We have established that this documentary was a consideration of the gold command, and in our judgement appears to be one factor in the decision to initiate Operation Augusta.”
Nevertheless, on Augusta, Mrs Oliver was involved in identifying scores of potential child rapists and in May 2004, was one of those who wrote the initial scoping report outlining the scale of the suspected paedophile ring. She was also involved, as she would be later in Rochdale, in gaining the trust of victims and carefully persuading them to support police inquiries.
But the following year, she went on compassionate leave.
“Mrs Oliver explained that in late March 2005, her husband’s illness deteriorated and she took time off work to look after him,” reports the review.
“She did, however, leave in the confident knowledge that finally the issues were being tackled, the abuse was being addressed, and children protected.
“However, in September 2005, Mrs Oliver returned to work to find the team was on another investigation altogether. She described to us that it was as if Operation Augusta had just disappeared as if it had never even existed.”
She was ‘unable to get any real answers as to why the investigation had finished before it had started’, she told the review.
Over the years that followed, she continually pushed for the investigation to be reopened, featuring in the 2017 BBC documentary Betrayed Girls – which partly prompted Andy Burnham to commission the review published today.
But by that stage, she says, after years of having her claims dismissed, she struggled to support the experts carrying out the review, Malcolm Newsam and Gary Ridgway.
Today’s conclusions therefore feel like a ‘vindication’ of the last 15 years of pushing for action, she told the M.E.N.
“It’s a very momentous day for me, both personally and actually publicly, because I’ve always known I’ve spoken the truth,” she says. “This has always been about the truth, for me.”
What GMP says
Assistant Chief Constable Mabs Hussain, Head of Specialist Crime for Greater Manchester Police, said: “We accept that authorities fell short of doing all they could to protect and support the child victims of sexual exploitation identified under Operation Augusta in 2004.
“Children should be able to expect those responsible for their care will do all they can to keep them safe and I want to apologise to all those vulnerable children who were let down. I can only imagine the pain and distress they must have gone through, which would have only been made worse by these failings. I am sorry they were let down and I am sorry they were not protected from harm.
“Many of the children were subject to the most profound abuse and, although the review team acknowledged there was much in Operation Augusta and the work carried out by the investigation team to be commended, we agree the overall operation was not to the standard rightfully expected from victims. We have made a voluntary referral to the Independent Office for Police Conduct so that they can carry out an independent assessment to determine if there are any conduct matters that should be investigated.
“We and our partners at Manchester City Council have personally contacted all but one victim featured in the report to offer them any support we can ahead of it being published. Each contact was carefully planned with care professionals to ensure we were as sensitive as possible and further specialist support was offered.
“Of course back in early 2000s, the priorities for forces across the UK were very different. This has completely changed and today safeguarding the vulnerable is our absolute priority.
“After taking learnings from the Operation Span investigation in Rochdale and the significant convictions secured in 2013, we have worked closely with partners across Greater Manchester to develop a consistent standard in addressing the exploitation of young people. This approach puts the victim at the centre of everything we do, which ensures that proper support is provided by the right agencies and any safeguarding concerns are addressed.
“With this support from partners, it provides a stronger footing for police to prevent, disrupt and investigate these crimes. The work of these specialised teams under Project Phoenix has been recognised nationally as showing excellent working practice in tackling child sexual exploitation across Greater Manchester.
“Our work initially focused on child sexual exploitation. We have continued to learn and develop these principles with partners over the last six years. As a result we have made further improvements to our whole approach to tackling the abuse and exploitation of young people.
“These improvements include the introduction of specialist co-located multi-agency ‘Complex Safeguarding Teams’ in every district across Greater Manchester. These focus on all aspects of exploitation including CSE, criminal exploitation and modern slavery.
“A Major Incident Team has been established under Operation Green Jacket. This dedicated multi-agency team has already carried out a significant amount of disruption actions, as well as numerous safeguarding visits.
“We have been reviewing all the information available and now a full investigation has been launched. To date, this investigation has resulted in one man being arrested and another interviewed under caution in September 2019 in connection with the abuse of Victoria Agoglia. The men have been released under investigation and we have provided an update to Victoria’s grandmother on the progress of our enquiries.
“This remains an ongoing investigation and I would encourage anyone who was involved in the original operation as a victim, potential victim or witness to please come forward and contact us so that we and partner agencies can provide you with any support we can.
“We will continue to do all that we can to safeguard children within our communities. Greater Manchester Police will investigate any report of child exploitation that is made.”
If you have been affected by this case and wish to speak to police, or if you believe you have information that can assist the investigation team, they can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org
If you have been affected by this case and would like to seek support from specialist agencies but do not wish to speak to police, then Victim Support can be contacted on 08081689024
What the council says
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. 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.”
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