The three part drama broadcast last week, starring Maxine Peake with Molly Windsor, Liv Hill and Ria Zmitrowicz, depicted the real life stories of three of the victims groomed and abused in the Rochdale child sexual exploitation and trafficking cases between 2008 and 2012.
It took steely determination to view those horrendous events, but anyone wanting to understand child sexual exploitation, would do well to watch it and see it through to the conclusion.
The drama depicted the lives of three of the hundreds of girls involved, who were befriended, groomed and abused by a gang of men in Rochdale and surrounding locations in the north of England. Although their names had been changed for the dramatisation, the production had been made with the full cooperation of the three and of others involved.
For the many of us who read the original reports in the media at the time, the concern was always going to be whether in turning this horrific series of events into a drama for the small screen, would it make the facts of what happened into an exaggerated and sensationalised fiction? Is there really ever any value to be gained by dramatising cases of this nature or does it serve no greater purpose than to feed our culture’s morbid curiosity by picking over the bones of these tragic events?
In this case, it proved to be an absolutely compelling portrayal of what was endured by so many, and really brought to life the complex dynamics and impact upon the victims and their families, not only in terms of the experiences they suffered but also the reaction of the statutory services to the girls involved.
The three actors who portrayed the victims took viewers right into the heart of the almost unwatchable sequence of events and gave very moving and skillful performances of the reality of what happened.
Holly, the lead character whose evidence is central to the successful prosecution that closes the story, was absolutely credible and believable taking the viewer through all the ups and downs of her emotion, which was raw and tangible. Her conflicted relationship with her father and her eager desire to find a place to belong within her peer group was completely convincing, as was her growing sense of dread and desperation as the evil web of lies and manipulation threatened to entrap her within the unspeakable abuse which swiftly became routine. Her relationships with the other two girls; two sisters, one older and more cynical, and the other younger and already deeply damaged, also ring true and plumbed the depths of the desperation that they must all have felt as they sank deeper into the hopelessness of their circumstances.
Perhaps most poignantly what the three programmes depicted so strongly, was the further abuse suffered through the actions, attitudes and inaction of the police, social services and those who were charged with the legal responsibility to respond to the reports of abuse.
One of the most memorable scenes showed Sara Rowbotham (Peake), the sexual health worker and the main advocate for the victims over a number of years, berating colleagues in the social services department and saying that when she looked at a victim she saw them as vulnerable and at risk, while the statutory authorities seemed to see them as culpable because of their lifestyle.
The narrative at this point in the story seemed to paint a picture of statutory agencies that had lost sight of single individuals and the help they could offer to affect change, in favour of squinting at the bigger issue, making their excuses and doing nothing. They had become paralysed with nonchalance and contempt for the lives of these young girls.
This was the central issue of what really happened in Rochdale and elsewhere where the girls as young as thirteen were regarded as prostitutes. In fact on countless occasions, the term 'child prostitutes' was used by professionals, which only reinforced the belief that the girls were not victims but willing and consenting participants in sexual activity with adults. Nothing could be further from reality but the authorities were blinkered and set on a course of inaction.
For us as Christians, this raises a really important issue for many working in the church and in our communities. So often, those who are broken and hurting or those who have been victims of abuse come to us seeking help. As Christians how do we let our perceptions and moral standards effect how we respond to those in need? Do we see victims as 'culpable' because of their apparent lifestyle? Do we turn away from them in their hour of need because we have lost sight of the one in a sea of complications, complexity and fear? How do we equip ourselves to offer them adequate help and support?
The reality that this drama highlights so vividly is that even today, post-Rochdale, there are no easy answers to the problem of child sexual exploitation. The ways in which children and young people become entrapped in exploitative and abusive relationships are myriad and complex and the exploitation itself tends to leave victims with an entirely understandable mistrust of anyone attempting to help them. Truly hearing the victim's story is hard work. What is needed is for more of us to be courageous and tenacious, whatever our professional background and work setting, in going the extra mile for troubled and troublesome young people. What role could the Church play in fulfilling this need to offer a listening ear and a voice to raise their cause?
The drama ends with the faces of the three girls, whose strength enabled this issue to be highlighted. Their strength was not innate, but was derived from the existence of adults around them who supported them and continued to see beyond the behaviour that others believed was the root cause of the problem. It was ultimately the unwavering pursuit of justice and dogged determination to get to the truth on the part of a few professionals that enabled the unspeakable abuses to be brought into the light and for the girls to be seen through the lenses of the potential they had as young women.
Justin Humphreys is the executive director for safeguarding at The Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS)
If you or someone you know has been effected by the themes and issues raised in the programme you can contact CCPAS' confidential help line on 0303 003 11 11