Susan* is the mother of “Girl A” — the 15-year-old victim of the Rochdale child sex trafficking gang who passed her, and scores of other children, around local paedophiles to be raped and abused.
It was Girl A’s shocking testimony that was key to seeing the nine-strong gang of Asian men each jailed for between four and 19 years at Liverpool Crown Court last May.
Traumatised … parents of Girl A
“But there are so many more men who paid to rape my daughter who are still out in our community getting on with their lives,” says Susan.
“Knowing I could get into a taxi being driven by someone who abused my child but got away with it, or that the stranger I just walked past might have been one of her rapists, kills me on a daily basis.
“And it only adds to the terrible feeling that this nightmare for us will never truly end.”
The sex ring centred around two takeaways in the Heywood area of Rochdale, Gtr Manchester, where youngsters would congregate.
The girls who were trafficked — some only 13 — were described in court as from chaotic, broken homes on council estates. Police said this made them easy targets.
They were groomed with the offer of alcohol, somewhere seemingly safe to hang out and lifts home. Their trust won over several months, the men then raped and intimidated the girls before offering them up to other paedophiles.
Cute … Girl A at one-month-old
Knowing that their daughter — now 19 — fell victim to such evil will haunt Girl A’s parents for ever.
But this assumption that she came from a feckless background and was unloved and uncared for only adds another dimension to their distress.
“It hurts that people think our daughter’s home life somehow helped to make her a victim,” says Girl A’s dad, John*.
Jailed … Shabir Ahmed
“She couldn’t have come from a more settled and loving background.
“Yes, we live on a council estate, but that doesn’t make us bad parents.
“We’re decent people and our daughter had a lovely, normal childhood.
“Her mum and me have been married for 20 years. She grew up enjoying all the things any little girl could hope for.
“She’s had dancing and singing lessons, lots of birthday parties and family holidays at the seaside. We ate together at the table every evening.
“There was nothing in the least bit chaotic about the way she was raised.
“But she got in with the wrong crowd at an impressionable age and it led to something that went beyond most parents’ worst nightmares.”
The harrowing details of the abuse Girl A and up to 50 other children suffered at the hands of the gang were hard enough for the public to stomach when they came out in court.
Unable to bear hearing it, Susan stayed away. She says: “I still have nightmares and struggle to sleep, because terrible thoughts of what she went through go round in my head.”
For John, the fact that their daughter has struggled to talk about what happened to her — even turning down offers of professional counselling — makes him all the prouder that she found the strength to speak out in court.
“They raped the wrong girl when they raped my daughter,” he says.
“They didn’t account for how strong her character is. She’s bright, articulate and was able to expose those animals in a way some of the other girls couldn’t.
“She opened everyone’s eyes to an underbelly of evil most of us never in our darkest thoughts imagined might exist.”
Caring … cuddling her little baby sister
At court every day, John hoped that seeing the gang members jailed would give him some closure.
Instead, the evidence he heard still plays on his mind every day.
Girl A told how she was picked up from school and driven around a succession of sordid flats and houses in the north of England where she would be raped by up to five men each night. This happened up to five times a week.
Warned by the gang that if she did not comply they would kill her and burn down her home while her family slept inside, she was too frightened to expose them.
It was not until she became pregnant, and was no longer of use to them, that she finally escaped their clutches.
Gang rape … our story
Recalling how he felt when police told him what his daughter had been subjected to, John says: “It was blind rage.
“And having experienced that level of horror and fury, I totally understand now how people are driven to kill and then plead diminished responsibility. I wanted to see every one of them dead.
“It was so hard to compute that such depravity existed. And to know that my little girl had been the victim of it was beyond sickening.”
He adds: “We are proof that this could happen to any of our daughters.
“I beat myself up wondering what I could or should have done differently to protect her. I thought she was just a teenager going off the rails. I had no idea what she was actually caught up in or who I was really fighting against.
“So, when she was coming home drunk having been plied with alcohol, the biggest thing I could threaten her with was to ground her.
Festive fun … in a Santa outfit
“These men were telling her they’d slit her throat or rape her little sister if she didn’t do what they said. That kind of evil was always going to win.”
It was when Girl A approached 15 that what appeared to be normal teenage rebellion rose to terrifying proportions. Susan says: “She’d always been brilliant at coming home at the time we set. But then she started coming home later and giving us a bit of cheek. Within weeks she was staying out until 12 o’clock, or not coming home at all.”
The worried couple would drive around the local streets, knocking on doors to see if anyone had seen her.
John says: “We were tearing our hair out. Then she’d come home reeking of alcohol and would swear at us.
“She’d always been a cheeky girl, in a funny, outgoing way — but this was completely out of character. It scared us.
“She has three younger siblings, and we couldn’t have them exposed to that kind of behaviour. We immediately started trying to rein her in.”
But Girl A defied every curfew they set, and refused to accept it when she was grounded, often disappearing for days at a time. Unbeknown to her parents, she was already in the clutches of the gang.
“I pleaded with social services to help us,” says John.
Vile … one of takeaways where gang groomed kids
“They said she’d soon be 16 and she was making lifestyle choices that we might not like but there wasn’t much that could be done about it. But we are not the kind of parents who were ever going to shrug our shoulders and accept it.
“We knew something had gone terribly wrong with our daughter — we just never imagined for a moment how horrendous things had got.”
In the end social services did step in when their daughter fell pregnant.
By now she was living with other young girls in a house owned by one of the paedophiles she later saw jailed.
Warned that her baby would be taken away at birth unless she moved out, she returned home to her parents.
“She wasn’t the same,” says Susan. “She was quiet and withdrawn, and obviously young to have become a mum.
“We were just glad to have her home and thought the nightmare had ended.”
Behind bars … ringleaders
Two years later the police told the Smiths they were investigating a local sex ring and that their daughter had been a victim of terrible abuse.
John says: “In many respects as parents our nightmare was only just beginning. But at least she was away from them now.”
Today Girl A is rebuilding her life. She is studying at college and lives near her parents with her son, now three.
Both homes have a panic alarm in case of retributions from gang associates.
“She should have been put into witness protection,” says John.
“If she’d helped smash a local drugs ring she wouldn’t still be living on the same estate they were dealing from.
“Even now one of us can be in a shop or waiting for a bus and people will talk about the case — oblivious to the fact that it is us they are talking about.
“Our daughter asks me sometimes when it will get better and if she will ever be able to forget. All I can offer is the cliche that time is a great healer.
“But in my heart I know time will only offer the same relief as paracetamol does for a broken bone. It takes the edge off. But that ache you are left with — nothing can ever fully take away.”
* Names have been changed to protect the victim’s identity