The real story behind Three Girls series - putting 19 abusers behind bars
Sara Rowbotham's crusade to uncover a sex ring exploiting teenage girls saw 19 men jailed. It is now the subject of a powerful TV drama, writes Margarette Driscoll
With her wild, curly hair and booming laugh, Sara Rowbotham is a familiar figure in the English town of Rochdale. She is a local councillor, former community health worker - and the woman whose dogged persistence blew the lid off a child abuse scandal that has put 19 men behind bars.
Rowbotham, now 50, ran an NHS-funded sexual health advice service for teenagers in the Greater Manchester town. She was the first to cotton on to a pattern that has become depressingly familiar: gangs of Asian men grooming vulnerable teenage girls, who they passed around for sex.
"We had no idea what we were getting into," says Rowbotham. "We started to see a pattern, something sinister."
Many of the girls who came into her clinic spoke of their 'boyfriends' - older Asian men with links to petty crime. Some had bruises, others the pale look of drug users. Between 2004 and 2010, Rowbotham made more than 100 referrals to police and social services - some girls as young as 13 - whom she believed were being sexually exploited.
She raised the issue time and again at meetings but no one seemed to listen, instead choosing to believe the girls were making a "lifestyle choice" in trading sex for money or drugs.
That story is now the subject of Three Girls, a powerful BBC drama to be shown over three nights, starting tonight. It revolves around Holly - better known as 'Girl A' - and her fellow victims, Amber and Ruby. These are not their real names; the girls have their identities protected by a court order.
Rowbotham is played by Maxine Peake, as a woman driven to distraction by her inability to protect the girls from a life of rape, drugs and beatings. At times, she admits, she must have appeared obsessed.
"A serious case review said I was really difficult to work with. Well, I was. I was in your face, I wasn't going to let it go. Many times, I lost my temper. What I was saying just wasn't being heard."
As she walks around Rochdale every day, she still sees men who she believes were involved in the abuse and hopes justice might yet catch them up. The Middleton area of Rochdale, where Rowbotham was born and worked, was a poor, depressed place; an amalgam of overspill estates from Manchester. The town's two cotton mills, historically its chief source of employment, had shut.
Girl A - Holly in the drama - was a newcomer to this world. She came from a happy home (it is a myth that most of the girls were in care), with a childhood full of dancing lessons and camping trips. But all that was ended by money troubles. Her father's business failed, the family lost their home and moved into a Rochdale council house.
Then a teenager, Holly was interested in clothes and going out. She resented her mother's repeated, "Sorry, maybe next week", when she asked for pocket money. She fell in with a troubled crowd at school and started playing truant.
One day, she followed them into Tasty Bites, an Indian takeaway run by 50-something Shabir Ahmed. He encouraged the girls to call him "daddy" and would give them fizzy drinks, vodka and cigarettes.
"It was lovely to have treats," she later recalled. "At first, it was if we were taking advantage of him, this silly old man. When he started talking about wanting a favour in return, I didn't understand. I'd always thought of rape as walking down a dark alley and getting grabbed." Holly was trapped; terrified her parents would find out - they were already furious at her missing school - and that Ahmed would follow through on threats to rape her little sister and burn her house down.
The second time they had sex, she tried to pull on her leggings. Ahmed told her not to bother, a man called Mulla was next. "It progressed from there till it was happening all the time, with different men." She was just 14.
The men saw the girls as "easy meat". The police saw them as unreliable witnesses, whose word would never stand up in court. When Holly flipped and smashed the glass counter in the kebab shop - the opening scene of Three Girls - the men were so sure of themselves they called the police, and she was arrested for criminal damage. She screwed up her courage and told the police she had been raped. At the end of the interview, an officer said: "Look, the tapes are off now. Did you just do this for a bit of money?" The allegation was investigated, then dropped. All the while, Rowbotham was hearing snippets of this story and others like it. She and her team started compiling evidence, taking girls out in her car to discreetly identify perpetrators; recording addresses and car registrations.
"Which I got into trouble for," she says drily. "The case review criticised my staff and said they were not police officers. But thank God we did that."
One of Rowbotham's education initiatives was to take local girls to meet inmates, just a few years older than themselves, at nearby HMP Buckley Hall - then a women's jail.
It was an eye-opener. Rowbotham overheard a conversation between the women and girls about the men they knew. "The prisoners were saying: "I bet he says 'condoms are against my religion'. I bet he makes you shave your pubic hair…'
"It was obvious there was a generation just removed, who had experienced exactly the same thing." So it proved. Operation Span, eventually set up by Greater Manchester police in December 2009 - after other girls in Rochdale came forward - led to the conviction of Ahmed (now serving 22 years for rape, aiding and abetting rape, sexual assault and drug trafficking) and eight others.
Operation Doublet produced another 10 convictions. There have been accusations that the police didn't act sooner for fear of causing racial tensions. But Rowbotham - though she has many criticisms of them - does not believe that.
"The police have never had an issue with arresting criminals," she says. "It wasn't that, it was about a deep disrespect for the girls."
Girl A was the chief witness at the Operation Span trial. I spoke to her a year later and was struck by how ordinary she seemed with her shy smile and hoop earrings. She was 20 then and at college, hoping to become a nurse or social worker.
Rowbotham says she doesn't see any of the three girls whose stories feature in the drama, but runs into other victims who live close by. "They are grown women now and to be fair it just feels awkward, so we've just passed pleasantries."
She was commended for her work by a Home Affairs Select Committee in 2012 but made redundant two years later. The personal cost of her battle has been post traumatic stress disorder and depression - "drinking too much, night terrors, not enjoying life".
In her frustration, surely it must have been tempting, at times, to take matters into her own hands? Rowbotham says that never happened. "Is it wrong? Am I a bit weird for not going out and confronting those men? Don't think I didn't want to smash their faces in - but that wasn't for me to do."
Three Girls starts tonight on BBC One at 9pm